Some words of Portuguese origin

The concise guide to the Anglo- Sri Lankan lexicon- III by Richard Boyle

Sunday Times Plus June 16 2002

The second editions of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED2) and Hobson-Jobson (H-J2) include a number of words of Portuguese origin that have found their way into the Anglo-Sri Lankan lexicon merely because the British happened to occupy a former Portuguese colony. While the wider Anglo-Indian lexicon contains a number of words of Portuguese origin, such as almyra, brinjal, caste, cobra, gram, mosquito, muster, palmyra, peon, and plantain, there are not so many Portuguese words exclusively associated with Sri Lanka. Here are just three examples, the first two being much better known than the third. Date of first use is provided in brackets:

Boutique (1834). At the time of the publication of the second edition of H-J2 in 1903, this, as the glossary states, was "a common word in Ceylon for a small native shop or booth." A century later it is more or less obsolete, having been replaced by the Sinhala term kade. Boutique is not of French origin as might be expected. It is derived from the Portuguese butica or boteca. The Anglo-Sri Lankan sense of the word is not recorded in the OED2.

The earliest illustrative quotation given in H-J2 is by Simon Casie Chetty from the Ceylon Gazetteer of 1834 - "the boutiques are ranged along both sides of the street." There are many other references from English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka. One is by William Skeen from Adam's Peak (1870:169): "We were overtaken by a smart shower, and gladly availed ourselves of the shelter of a boutique on the wayside."

Another is by Henry W. Cave from The Ceylon Government Railway (1910[2002]:10): "Chatham Street is composed of a strange medley of restaurants, native jewellers, curiousity shops and provision boutiques."

Bella Woolf, writing in How to See Ceylon (1914:46), provides possibly the best description of a boutique in literature pertaining to the island: "The native shops - boutiques they are called in Ceylon, a relic of Portuguese days - are open to the winds of heaven. Here the seller sits cross-legged or on his haunches on the floor, while all the day and far into the night the purchasers swarm around. Strange to European eyes are the sacks and baskets full of curry stuffs, chillies, Maldive fish, and grains unknown to the West, kurakkan, gingelly, paddy, and gram. The fruit shops brim with plantains (bananas to most people), pineapples, rambuttans, (red and green round fruits covered with prickles), mangoes, custard apples, papaws, breadfruit, brinjals (purple and white), pumpkins. 'Candles for sale' is the device outside one boutique and attenuated specimens of the candle tribe dangle on strings. There are boutiques displaying gay-coloured clothes and handkerchiefs, there are betel-leaves impaled on sticks, sold together with arecanut and lime for chewing purposes. In some places tailors are machining for dear life - a tiresome touch of the West. In another doorway a woman sits at work on pillow lace. Here is a barber shaving his victim, or an astrologer casting a horoscope."

My final example is by Harry Williams, who notes in Ceylon Pearl of the East (1950[1963]:163): "If they cannot grow this tobacco, they will barter any surplus crops that they may have at the boutique, or village shop, for it."

Cabook (1834). In Sinhala this is called kabuk-gal. H-J2 states that it is "the Ceylon term for the substance called in India laterite. The word is perhaps the Portuguese cabouco or cavouco, 'a quarry.'" The editor adds in parenthesis: "Mr (Donald) Ferguson says that it is a corruption of the Portuguese pedra de covouca, 'quarry-stones,' the last word being a misapprehension applied to the stones themselves."

This word, deemed as having a non-naturalized status by the original editors of the OED, nestles comfortably between caboodle and caboose in the second edition. According to the entry, it is "The name given in Ceylon to a reddish gneissoid building-stone, soft when quarried but hardening by exposure to the air; laterite."

Curiously, as with boutique, the earliest reference quoted in H-J2 (and the OED2 for that matter) is by Simon Casie Chetty from the Ceylon Gazetteer of 1834: "The soil varies in different situations on the Island. In the country round Colombo it consists of a strong red clay, or marl, called cabook, mixed with sandy ferruginous particles." And: "The houses are built with cabook, and neatly whitewashed with chunam."

There is also a quotation by James Emerson Tennent from Ceylon (1859[1977]:I.17) that begins: "A peculiarity which is one of the first to strike a stranger who lands at Galle or Colombo is the bright red colour of the streets and roads . . . and the ubiquity of the red dust which penetrates every crevice and imparts its own tint to every neglected article. Native residents in these localities are easily recognizable elsewhere by the general hue of their dress. This is occasioned by the prevalence . . . of laterite, or, as the Singhalese call it, cabook."

However, an earlier reference, or antedating, does exist, for James Cordiner writes in A Description of Ceylon (1807[1983]:7): "The foundation of the soil is generally a deep layer of reddish clay, mixed with sandy and ferruginous particles. In this country it is called cabooc stone. When first broken up it is as soft as a stiff clay, and as easily cut into pieces; but after being exposed to the heat of the sun, it becomes indurated and brittle, and is used as a stone for the purposes of building."

Another pre-1834 reference is by John Davy, who remarks in An Account of the Interior of Ceylon (1821:38): "The best and most productive soils of Ceylon, are a brown loam resulting from the decomposition of gneiss or granitic rock, abounding in felspar, or a reddish loam, resulting from the decomposition of clay-iron stone called in Ceylon, Kabook-stone."

Other references include the following by J. W. Bennett from Ceylon and its Capabilities (1843:373): "From Barberyn to Kalutara, the road is excellent, in some places cut through hills of Kabook clay" and (Ibid.327) "There are several excellent houses, chiefly of Kabook, or iron-stone clay."

Charles Henry Sirr writes in Ceylon and the Cingalese (1850:I.103) of the hot springs at Kanniyai, Trincomalee: "The enclosure in which the springs are, is about forty feet long, and eighteen wide, being surrounded by a wall of kabook, each well likewise having a low embankment."

William Skeen writes in Adam's Peak (1870:123) of the Maha Saman Dewale near Ratnapura: "Inside these (walls) are corresponding rows of five brick or cabook pillars, with a passage ten feet wide between."

My final example is by Henry W. Cave from The Ceylon Government Railway (1910[2002]:10): The roads are metalled with dark red cabook, a product of disintegrated gneiss, which being subjected to detrition communicates its hue to the soil."

Marmala-water (1857). In Sinhala this is called Pini-diyara. "(Marmala is a corruption of Portuguese marmelo, the Bengal quince.) A liquid distilled from the flowers of the marmelos, used in Ceylon as a perfume for sprinkling." The two striking things about marmala-water are the brevity of the entry and the paucity of references in mainstream literature pertaining to Sri Lanka. When I commented thus to the co-editor of the OED he shrewdly replied: "Oh yes, marmala-water! A case of the smaller the entry, the more it seems to demand!"

Eventually I did find an explanatory reference in Robert Knox's Sinhalese Vocabulary, edited by Donald Ferguson (Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol.14, No.47, 1896). No. 35 on Knox's list is pinne deura, which Ferguson notes is "dewwater i.e. rosewater. Pini-diyara. Clough has 'pinidiya nectar of flowers; dew; water distilled from the Beli or wood apple flower.'" In a footnote to this, Ferguson comments: "Marmel water still forms an article of export from Ceylon to India."