Indian Words The British Took And Made Their Own

English may be the defacto link language in many parts of the world, but it owes its ever-expanding database to loads of other languages. Of course, Indian languages played a huge role in building up the English word bank – India being the Crown Jewel of the British Empire and all.

Now we would love to play Dad from My Big Fat Greek Wedding who will trace every word in the world back to Greek. But that wouldn’t be playing fair, so we’ll stick to a small selection of English words that have origins in Indian language, but have been adapted and morphed to mean different things.



This word has roots in the Tamil word paraiyar, referring to a caste of people who were drummers. They were considered to be of a lower caste, and often lived in isolated groups away from the rest of society. When the British got here, they believed that they helped eradicate some of this casteism, but the word was included in their vocabulary.

The term ‘social pariah’ refers to someone who doesn’t fit in, or is unpopular in a group. But you go be your unique selves, social pariahs!



Now whether or not they were pariahs in their groups, the English missed home terribly. When they ruled in India, they were referred to as bilayati or wilayati (Urdu/Hindi) meaning foreign/European. They must’ve really loved the word, for they soon adapted it to “Blighty” to refer to England.

Remember to have a curry with extra chips on your next trip to Good Ol’ Blighty!



You knew this was coming. The word curry has an interesting origin – it is said to lie in the Tamil word kari (meaning charcoal/a style of cooking meat back in the day). Now, we often use ‘curry’ to describe a base sauce, or a dish that’s a ‘gravy.’ British people refer to all Indian food as curry. They love going “out for a curry” so much, one study suggests they spend about £250 million on Indian food every year!



Moving on from food to fashion, the word cashmere comes from… guessed it, Kashmir. It refers to the fine luxurious fabric that’s knit from the hair of goats found in the Himalayas. Incidentally, the word Pashmina also originates from the same source, referring to even finer wool. In Persian, it means “made from wool.” Today however, people in the UK will call a shawl (also an Indian origin word) or scarf Pashmina – “Oh I love the Pashmina you got me for Christmas!”



Khaki comes from Hindi/Urdu – meaning mud-coloured. Its origins go back even further to the Persian word khak meaning soil. To date, people who speak Hindi will say “khak” to refer to something that’s pointless, or waste.

Khaki went to Britain from India, and has become one of the most recognisable colours in the world. Because of its easily camouflageable nature, it was adopted as the official colour for British uniforms (much smarter than their existing scarlet uniforms!). But over the years it’s morphed to represent a certain style of trousers – all in the signature dull beige colour of course.



Back to food again – it is after all food, that brings cultures and people together. What India called ‘chutney’ was often made with fresh ingredients and as an accompaniment to rice, or other staple carbs. Chutney comes from Hindi, meaning to literally “lick” – it’s just that good. Chutney took on a different form in the UK, becoming the word for sweeter, preserved reductions and jams. Today, you can buy a “chutney sandwich” in England, which tastes of apples, cranberries and some spices thrown in. It’s also served with cheese platters – could it be any farther from original chutneys?


There’s Plenty More Where That Came From

Are you sitting on the teak (tekku) bench on your verandah (baranda), in your pyjamas after shampooing (champoo) your hair, sipping a ginger (singivera) tea, feeling rather cushy (khush)? Perhaps reading a book by a spiritual guru, learning the secrets to achieving nirvana?

Maybe later you can go to a yoga class and eat an orange (narang) to make sure your health stays pukka. Be careful not to trip into the tank (tanke/tanku) or culvert (kalvettu) on your way there!  And as an ending note, ‘Aiyo’ is now listed in the Oxford Dictionary!


The British Blueprints Trail

Join Storytrails on a fascinating walking tour of Chennai’s British Blueprints – learn the stories of their lives and activities in erstwhile Madras, along with tales of scandals, affairs, crime, wars, and kidnapped priests (we’re not kidding).

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