Language Pulsations: Turkish loanwords

Photos for Blog 21

Despite centuries of contact between the Ottoman Empire and the West, there are surprisingly few purely Turkish loanwords in English. Why would this be? It turns out that most of the words that came to us from Ottoman lands–kiosk, pilaf, sofa, sherbet, vizier, seraglio, tulip …–were were themselves borrowed into Turkish from Persian and Arabic by Turks. This is mainly because the literary and political tongue of the Ottoman Empire was Osmanlıca, which was essentially Turkic grammar, with Persian vocabulary, written in Arabic script. The story of Arabic and Persian loanwords would be a different story–there could be several posts just covering the dozens of Arabic loanwords in English.

But in the meantime, here are three the words in English I’m aware of that are unequivocally Turkish.

Yogurt is from the Turkish yoğurt, related to the Turkish verb yoğunlaşmak “to condense” and the adjective yoğun “intense.” Yogurt was invented 4000 years ago by Central Asian nomadic trans-pastoralists, probably Turkic, who discovered that milk is more long-lasting, digestible, and nutritious when bacteria was added to it.

Many cultures probably independently discovered this food technology over the millenia, but yogurt is uniquely important in the Turkish diet–in Ottoman days, it was a staple like bread, and today it is a sauce, side dish, or beverage in almost every meal. Yogurt folk histories abound. A co-worker of mine claimed that his ancestor brought yogurt to Poland in powdered form and thereby single-handedly introduced the food to the Western world. Another friend shared a different theory, that Europeans first met the food during the siege of Vienna, where Ottoman armies were consuming it (suspiciously similar to the croissant origination theory).

According to the Ottoman History Podcast–a more reliable source–yogurt as a food source was unknown in the West until the early 20th century. At this time, the Ottoman Empire was splintering and former Ottoman citizens were scattering across the globe. In 1919, the Dannon company was started in Barcelona by a former Ottoman-Jewish doctor, while fleeing Armenians brought yogurt to the US to sell to fellow Armenians as well as to Syrians, Jews, Greeks, and other communities who had emigrated from the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. Although each community had different names for this very ancient food, the one shared term for it was the Turkish one, so this was how it was marketed. Hence, the world now knows this amazing dairy product by its Turkish name.

“The Mongol hordes are coming! Run for your lives!” While “horde” in English can mean a large group of anything, we often use word in relation to “barbarian” conquerors on horseback. This makes sense, since the word originally came from the Turkic/Mongolic word ordu meaning “camp,” “tent,” or “royal court,” or in modern Turkish, “army.”

From the times of Genghis Khan to the present day, Central Asian nomadic-pastoral peoples have organized themselves in “hordes,” fiercely hierarchical and patriarchal groups often commanded by a strong emperor or leader. Genghis Khan’s sons presided over the Blue Horde, White Horde, and Golden Horde, and there are still hordes in parts of modern-day Kazakhstan. “Horde” probably came to English via Polish, as terrified Slavic peoples constantly feared the wrath of nomadic warriors.

Odalisque is the French form of Turkish odalık, composed of oda “room” and -lık, a suffix expressing the function of a thing. An odalık was a chambermaid, maidservant, or female slave. In the Ottoman harem, the odalık was the lowest-ranking servant and she never offered her services to the sultan. Europeans, however, did not understand the intricacies of the Ottoman court stratification, and simply understood an odalık as a harem concubine. Orientalist interest in these “odalisques” peaked in Europe during the 19th and early 20th centuries, as can be seen in famous paintings by Matisse, Renoir, and Ingres.

Turquoise, turkey
Actually, neither “turquoise” nor “turkey” are derived from a Turkish word per se, but both have the word “turk” in them because they refer to Turkey. As I’ve explained in length before, the bird known as “turkey” was introduced to Europe via trading through Ottoman-Turkish domains. Similarly, Venetian traders originally discovered and traded for the jewel turquoise in Turkish lands, so the greenish-blue stone gained the name in French pierre turquoise “Turkish stone,” and a color word was subsequently coined based on the color of the jewel.

Language Pulsations: Apology and Sorry

“Don’t you agree?!”

I looked up, startled out of my homework haze. I was sitting at a guard desk in a campus dormitory, mechanically checking student IDs, when a spunky freshman and her boyfriend addressed me.

“Agree about what?” I asked, surprised.

“That girls like sorry’s better than apologies,” she repeated.

“… Is there a difference?”

“Exactly!” the boyfriend said, obviously vindicated.

“No, there’s a difference!” the freshman from earlier protested. “An apology is, like, you’re apologizing that what you did made me feel bad. Saying sorry is, like, more personal.”

Then the elevator whisked them away, leaving a question hanging in the air: What is the difference between saying “I’m sorry” and “I apologize”?

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Language Pulsations: Turkey Around the World

Every year around this time, I get asked the one-million-dollar Thanksgiving question: what is the relationship between Turkey-the-country and turkey-the-bird? In the past, my explanations have centered on the fact that the English named the turkey after the Ottoman “Turks,” who first introduced the bird to them. This year, I began to wonder: is English the only language in which the turkey is named after a country? If not, in how many languages is this the case? More than I ever imagined: English, Turkish, French, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, and, at one point, German, Greek, Hindi, and Urdu.

My new question became–why? What is the grander international story of the humble Thanksgiving bird? As it turns out, tracking the different appellations applied to the meleagris gallopavo perfectly recreate trade routes of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Olaf Caroe writes,

The various names given to this bird [the turkey] in so many languages are…a fascinating commentary on the expansion of world trading and migrations, not only human, that took place at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century. (“Why Turkey,” Journal of Asian Affairs, 1970)

To understand the whole story, we have to start with Portuguese. To this day, the Portuguese word for turkey is peru, as in Peru, the South American country (thanks to A.G. for confirming this). Caroe goes on to note that, in Hindi and Urdu of the fifteenth/sixteenth centuries, the turkey was also called peru. Why?

It has to do with the directionality of trade routes in that era. As historian H.B. Paksoy explains (Essays on Central Asia, Carrie, 1999), in 1494 the Pope in Rome forged the Tordesillas treaty, granting a monopoly on commerce originating from the newly discovered North American continent to the Portuguese (as opposed to the Spanish). At the time, Spanish possessions in the New World were collectively labeled Peru. Thus peru, applied to the bird, would suggest merely that it came from Central America.

The Portuguese, using their new trading privileges, brought, among other things, the turkey from Spanish territories in the Americas to Goa, the Portuguese colony in India. From India, the turkey was traded all over the Eurasian continent, as the names of the turkey in various European languages suggest:

One major language that is missing here is Spanish. In Spanish turkey is pavo (feminine pava), the Latin word for peacock from which Spanish-speakers do not distinguish the turkey. Yet Caroe suggests that even this name partakes in the Indian hypothesis, because Spaniards believed that the peacock was an Indian bird.

Thus, not only did European states originally meet the turkey through their trade with India, but most Europeans thought that the turkey was actually native to India, when in truth it was from “the New World,” the Americas. The catch is that Europeans did not know the difference between the New World and India, due to the widespread misconception that the New World was eastern Asia. Caroe writes,

The confusion may have arisen from the nearly simultaneous discovery of the Americas and of the Cape [of Good Hope] route to India by Spain and Portugal respectively. … Add to this … that the West Indian islands and the Red [Native American] Indian take their names from the belief of the early explorers that in the New World they had reached the coasts of India. So the bird, in common with the native tribes of America, got an Indian connotation. [My politically-correct correction]

From India, one of the places the turkey was then introduced to was Egypt, a province of the Ottoman Empire. Thus the Turkish word for “turkey” is hındı, meaning “from India” and probably a borrowing from French dinde, a contraction of  poulet de l’Inde, “chicken from India.”

When traders took a breeding stock from Ottoman Egypt–commonly known at the time as “Turkish” Egypt because the Ottomans were a Turkish dynasty who ruled from Istanbul, Turkey–to Spain and thence the British Isles, the bird was designated “turkey” in English. Caroe points out that in essence, this word is not really a divergence from the European trend of naming the bird after India: “To the English mind of the sixteenth century, Indian, Moor, and Turk meant much the same” (i.e., they were all furreners).

Today’s words for turkey around the world less reflect colonial-era trading routes and more US cultural imperialism. According to Google Translate and Word Reference, “turkey” in Hindi, German, Greek, and Danish are borrowings of the English word (टर्की, Türkei, Τουρκία, and Tyrkiet, respectively… although the Dutch word is still kalkoen).

So, when you chow down on your turkey (or vegetarian substitute) you can be newly impressed by the long history and international travels of the bird.

How do you say turkey in other languages and where do those words come from? Let me know in the comments.

Language Pulsations: Sketchy (Repost)

“Sketchy…” “Sketch!” “Totally sketchville…” Sketchiness and the judging of things and situations as sketchy is so ubiquitous in teenage and college social culture that I never gave it a second thought. There are so many moments in daily life that beg for the word—Facebook stalking, the cream of mushroom soup at the university cafeteria, Rob Blagojevich, or that guy you met who constantly washes his hands with Clorox wipes. What did we ever do without “sketchy”?
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Language Pulsations: Nature

1. An excerpt from Daniel Clowe’s 2010 graphic novel, Wilson.

2. View in a Safeway grocery store

3. In an AP news story entitled “Celebrity Sex-Tape Scandal Grips Indonesia,” Indonesia’s Minister of Education Muhammad Nuh is quoted responding to the question of whether education about sex should be added to the school curriculum. “I may be obsolete, but I don’t see that sex education in schools is needed,” he told reporters. “I believe people will learn about sex naturally.”

4. In Malcolm Gladwell’s article “John Rock’s Error,” the creator of the birth control pill, John Rock, is described as a pious Catholic who thought that “the Pill’s ingredients duplicated what could be found in the body naturally.” He thought that this “naturalness” was theologically significant. Gladwell explains that “Pope Pius XII had sanctioned the rhythm method of Catholics because he deemed it a ‘natural’ method of regulating procreation.”

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Sublime joined the English language via Middle French. Latin in form, it came from the word sublimis “uplifted, high, lofty,” composed of sub “up to, under, below” prefixed to the word limen, meaning “lintel, threshold, doorway” or perhaps “limit.” Literally, the word meant “sloping up to the lintel” or “underneath the lintel.” Figuratively, we could speculate that sublimis referred to the feelings stirred up in a worshipper when he crossed the threshold into his temple.

Thus, etymologically, the sublime is what we experience in the presence of our god.

Photo source:


Henri Mattise, Odalisque Seated with Arms Raised, Green Striped Chair, 1923

Pierre Auguste Renoir, Odalisque, 1870

Henri Matisse, Odalisque with a Moorish Chair, 1928

Odalisque is the French form of Turkish odalık “chambermaid, maidservant, female slave,” composed of oda “room” and lık, a suffix expressing the function of a thing.

PS. The first two paintings are hung right next to each other in the Chester Dale Collection exhibition at the National Gallery. Hence my interest in what the hell an odalisque is, and my resulting delight (but not surprise) that it was something Ottoman/Turkish. Of course, the most famous odalisque painting is the one by Ingres.

PPS. May I point out, in the Matisse drawing above, the one continuous line that begins on the subject’s right knee and swoops down to form the outline of her inner left leg and some of the folds in her pants. Do you see it, that backwards-s-shaped stroke? That single penstroke blows my mind.

Odalisque Seated with Arms Raised, Green Striped Chair, 1923