Finding their way to the Oxford Dictionary
Extracts from Knox’s Words by Richard Boyle, published by Visidunu Prakashakayo (Pvt) Ltd to be launched on August 10
At the beginning of the 21st century Knox's book is considered the finest account of Sri Lanka in the English language and remains an invaluable storehouse of information for the researcher.

Knox's contribution to the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED2) goes unnoticed, however, although the dictionary contains 96 illustrative quotations from An Historical Relation of Ceylon, putting him on a par with a major writer such as William Blake, who is remarkably under-represented with only 112 quotations to his name. That Knox's contribution has remained unknown for so long is because such statistical information was impossible to access with any degree of accuracy until the appearance of the OED2 on CD-ROM in 1992.

Of the 96 quotations from An Historical Relation of Ceylon, three - illustrating the words bring, foppery, and talipot-leaf - are contained in the preface written by Robert Hooke. In addition to Hooke's words, there is one quotation - illustrating the word baobab - that is contained in a digest of Knox's book. This too has been disregarded, for nowhere does Knox employ the word. Therefore Knox's tally is actually 92.

The appearance of these quotations in the OED2 is not the sole contribution Knox made to the documentation of the English language. No less than 36 illustrate words for which Knox is credited with the first occurrence in English literature. These are either English words with unusual senses or foreign words, which with a few exceptions are of Sinhala or Sanskrit origin.

Of Knox's tally of 92 illustrative quotations, 47 are references to words of English origin with a Sri Lankan setting. Some of these 47 references are to familiar words with unfamiliar and mostly obsolete meanings. Such words include clap (to lay hold of promptly), dead (unsaleable goods), equal (to make ground level), physical (having a taste like medicine), stream (ray of light; tail of a comet), stubborn (hard, stiff, rigid material), and use (to practise the calling of a sailor).

Other references are to less familiar but once again mostly obsolete English words. Examples are bandy (a curved club used in the antiquated game of bandy), contentation (satisfaction), illy (in an ill manner), stander (a person of long-standing), tarriance (temporary residence), and unshale (to unhusk).

Although the origin of these words has no relevance to Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan context in which they are used is often of interest. For example, Knox uses the verb clap to elaborate the mistaken belief that the python uses its anal spurs to clasp hold of its prey, and the adjective stubborn to explain the rigidity of the leaf of the talipot. The verb equal is used to describe the preliminary levelling of ground necessary in the making of a paddy field, and the adjective physical to characterise the medicinal smell of a certain shrub.

The first occurrence of four of the words - an-hungry (in a hungry state), atomy (a living skeleton), entertainment (a formal or elegant meal), and rarely (exceptionally) - is attributed to Shakespeare. Approximately 40% entered the literature of the language during the 17th century, 30% during the 16th century, and a further 23% during the 15th and 14th centuries. The remaining 7% are from the 13th, 11th, and 9th centuries. The earliest are adze (c.880) and floor (c.880), while the latest are dead (1669-70) and physical (1648). Note that dead dates from the time of Knox's captivity. Possibly this is an example of a word introduced to the text by Robert Hooke. Others perhaps are the four attributed to Shakespeare, together with contentation and stream.

Knox provides the first occurrence in English literature of unusual senses of 11 English words, many of which are obsolete. They are bound (limit or boundary), committee (one of the twenty-four directors of the East India Company), dodge (to move to and fro about, around, or behind any obstacle to elude a pursuer, etc.), drill (to churn), fish-pot (a wicker basket for catching fish), impose (to place authoritatively), reeve (to pass a rod etc., through an aperture), shot (to load a fire-arm with shot), tarrish (having a taste like tar), truck (to carry goods about for sale) and worn (infertile land).

Once again the Sri Lankan context of some of these words is worth noting. The noun fish-pot is used by Knox to refer to the pot-shaped fish-baskets of freshwater fishermen - of which Knox provides an illustration - and the verb reeve to explain how such fishermen string their catch together by passing a rattan through the gills of each fish. Then there is the adjective tarrish, which is used by Knox to describe the tar-like taste of the honey of a small bee, and the adjective worn to describe the land infertility caused where jasmine flowers were grown intensively for the King's pleasure.

Non-obsolete words
It is the non-obsolete words on this list that are of greater importance. The noun bound, the plural of which is familiar to us today in the phrase out-of-bounds, is used by Knox to explain how, as a prisoner, he had gone beyond his limits within the Kandyan kingdom. Then there is the verb dodge, with a sense commonly employed today, which is used by Knox to describe the way the Islanders elude a charging elephant by moving behind a tree.

Knox also provides the first occurrence of two foreign words with naturalised status in the English language - rice (a kind or variety of the plant) and sash (a scarf worn by men, usually over one shoulder or round the waist). The Kandyan sash referred to by Knox is featured in an illustration from An Historical Relation of Ceylon of a nobleman. That Knox contributes the first occurrence of the third sense of the universal word rice (the first two senses being the seeds or grains, and the plant itself), not to mention the first occurrence of one of the principle senses of the common word sash, enhances his literary achievement. Regarding the latter word, Knox uses the form shash, which is more faithful to the Arabic original. Sash is an example of the way creeping Anglicisation has occurred in order to facilitate the pronunciation of an awkward sounding word of foreign origin.

References by Knox are used in the OED2 to illustrate a number of what are termed Anglo-Indian words, i.e., those that entered the English language largely due to British trade and colonial interaction with the Indian subcontinent. These 12 words are of miscellaneous origin. Some have a close though not exclusive association with Sri Lanka. They are bamboo, calabash, cinnamon, coco, curry, ebony, jaggery, Malabar, mango, pagoda, plantain-leaf, and tamarind-tree.

Half of these words - in particular bamboo, cinnamon, curry and mango - are now in common use throughout the English-speaking world. The rest are of varying familiarity outside Sri Lanka and the region. Calabash (a hollow gourd for carrying water), jaggery (a coarse brown sugar), and Malabar (an inhabitant of the south-east coast of India), are probably least known. On the other hand coco would be familiar if encountered in its modern form, coconut.

The most important references among Knox's tally are to words of Sinhala and other, mainly Indian, origin, for which Knox provides the first occurrence. These have an exclusive or very close association with Sri Lanka. They also comprise the core words of this study. Eighteen are recorded in the OED2. A further six are recorded but not recognised as being Knox words. Two or three others are to be included in the revised third edition - OED3 - currently under preparation.

Thus at some point in the first decade of the 21st century the tally of core Knox words will increase to 26 or 27. In addition I have presented evidence for three other Knox words to the editorial team for possible inclusion in the OED3. While Knox's words represent an insignificant drop in the OED2 ocean of 291,500 main entries, they are consequential in the context of the 250 or so words of Sri Lankan origin or association recorded in the dictionary.

The core words in question in the form they appear (or are due to appear) in the dictionary, which does not necessarily adhere to Knox's original or subsequent spellings, are:

ambalama, betel-leaf, bo-tree, Buddha, dissava, gaur, kabaragoya, kangany, kittul or kitool, kurakkan, illuk, land-leech, murunga, musk-rat 2.a., perahera, polonga, poojah or puja, rattan 1.a. and rattan 2.a., rillow, talipot, talipot-leaf, tic-polonga, toran, Vedda, vihara and wanderoo.

Closer scrutiny and categorisation of this list reveal, as far as fauna is concerned, two primates (rillow, wanderoo), two reptiles (kabaragoya, tic-polonga), a rodent (musk-rat), a worm (land-leech), and an ox (gaur). Flora also is well represented, with three tree species (bo-tree, kittul, talipot), a creeper (rattan), a vegetable (murunga), a cereal (kurakkan) and a grass (illuk). Buddhism makes a proportionate contribution with the name of the founder of the faith (Buddha), a venerated tree (bo-tree, already accounted for), a perennial ritual (perahera), a sacred archway (toran), and a temple (vihara). The remainder consists of a miscellany: two official titles (dissava, kangany), a member of an aboriginal tribe (Vedda), a wayside shelter (ambalama), a leaf used for masticatory purposes (betel-leaf), and a Hindu (but in Sri Lanka also a Buddhist) rite (poojah).

Usage of the majority of these words is restricted to Sri Lanka (ambalama, illuk, kittul, kurakkan, land-leech, murunga, perahera, tic-polonga). Some have an Indian origin and a regional usage (gaur, kangany, toran, vihara). Others of Sinhala and regional origin have attained international usage in the 19th and 20th centuries (betel-leaf, bo-tree, Buddha, poojah, rattan and wanderoo). This is reflected in their widespread inclusion in concise English dictionaries. Of all these Knox words Buddha is the most universal and the one most associated with Sri Lanka. It is apt that Knox's legacy should include the first occurrence in English literature of a word so hallowed by such a large percentage of the Island's population.

Knox’s Words across the miles
In September 1680, Robert Knox returned to London after an absence of 22 years, most of which was spent incarcerated in the Kandyan Kingdom of the otherwise Dutch-held island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka).Knox experienced a rapid reintegration with English society. At a London coffee house he was introduced to the scientist Robert Hooke. When Hooke learnt that Knox had written an account of the island - the first in English - he assisted in preparing the manuscript for publication, performing an editorial role and writing a preface.

Within a year of Knox's return "An Historical Relation of Ceylon" was published. This popular book introduced readers to many exotic words of Sri Lankan origin or association with a diverse future in the English language. The usage of some of these loan words, dissava, kabaragoya, kittul, kurakkan, illuk and perahera, would remain restricted to the island. Others, such as gaur, kangany, toran and vihara, would enjoy regional usage. Then there were those, such as betel-leaf, bo-tree, Buddha, poojah and rattan, which would attain international usage. All these words brought to the language by Knox and others ended up in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Richard Boyle's book to be released on August 10 uncovers Knox's contribution to the language, which extends to words of English origin, as recorded in the OED. A comprehensive introduction provides the background to the subject, especially Knox's book. The main section traces the history of the Knox words of Sri Lankan origin from the publication of An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681) to Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost (2000). The author has consulted eighty-nine books published during this period, gathering some 650 quotations to illustrate thirty words. Chronological presentation of the quotations reveals the manner in which spelling evolved and how initial usage entailing careful definition gave way to more casual usage.

The word entries are modelled on those of the OED and include comments by the author on derivation and definition. Furthermore, due to the author's involvement with the OED a glimpse is provided of the dictionary's ongoing revision programme. Knox's Words is more than just a study in etymology and lexicography, however. The quotations expose Knox's influence on subsequent writers, prejudice towards local custom and tribal people, and much fascinating incidental information on Sri Lanka. This unusual book is not only a groundbreaking study but also a multi-faceted reference work of interest to a variety of readers.

Richard Boyle was born and educated in England but has resided in Sri Lanka since 1984. A former film producer and scriptwriter, he has devoted much of the past two decades to research concerning cultural aspects of Sri Lanka's British colonial period (1796-1948).

In 2000 he began assisting the Oxford English Dictionary in the revision of the entries for words of Sri Lankan origin or association contained in the dictionary's second edition. The work has resulted in this study and the forthcoming glossary, The Concise Guide to the Anglo-Sri Lankan Lexicon. Richard Boyle is a regular contributor of features to The Sunday Times and the author of the biography B.P. de Silva: The Royal Jeweller of South-East Asia (1989).

John Simpson, Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary welcoming Boyle's study says, " The OED's remit is to document the vocabulary of every part of the world where English is used, and in Sri Lanka as in many other such regions, the roots of this vocabulary are often to be found in the writings of early voyagers, explorers and traders. Boyle's research has admirably highlighted Knox's contribution to the origins of Sri Lankan English and has provided much material for the updating and revision of this aspect of the OED”.

Historic grandeur thro’ Gamini’s eyes
By D.C. Ranatunga
Pioneer archaeologist and Ceylon civil servant H.C.P. Bell came to Sri Lanka in 1873 to serve as the first head of the Archaeological Survey from 1890 to 1912. His excavation and conservation work has left a wealth of valuable archaeological remains of the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa kingdoms. In 1897, Bell discovered a series of fragmentary remains of old paintings at Pulligoda Galge which he reckoned belonged to the first half of the 12th century. Pulligoda-Galge is three and a half miles south of Dimbulagala near Manampitiya.

In his work 'Buddhist paintings', D.B. Dhanapala mentions that the caves, situated on the steep face of the rock high above the ground, are reached only after a very tiring ascent through huge boulders. When renowned photographer Gamini Jayasinghe decided to visit Pulligoda-Galge some years back to capture these paintings, he found it a tough assignment. There was only a jeep track and in addition to his camera equipment, he had to take a generator to light up the place. Once the assignment was over and the party was returning a lone elephant was roaming around and they were stranded in the jungle. This was just one instance when Gamini found himself in trouble during his forty years of capturing rock and cave paintings through his lens. He remembers going through a serpent-infested jungle in a tractor to reach Kotiyagala Myells cave shrine, where even before the advent of Buddhism, remnants of Veddah rock art in raw sketch form have been found.

Starting his career as a film editor in the Government Film Unit in the late fifties, Gamini remembers his first effort at photographing temple paintings at Ranwella in the Kataluwa temple."The paintings were at the bottom of the border and it was with great difficulty that I photographed them," he recalled. These pictures were picked up by the then popular magazine 'Orientations' in a feature on Sri Lanka's temple art. Having seen this feature, Lever Brothers Chairman Heinz Hellins got through to Gamini to find out whether he would undertake an assignment to cover paintings in temples for a photographic documentation of paintings. This was the first major project of the Lever Brothers Cultural Conservation Trust which Chairman Hellins took the initiative in forming. This was Gamini's first big break.

"For four and a half years, I travelled all over the country. Levers provided all the facilities and arranged for expert advice from international institutions like the Smithsonian Institute on how to set about the task. Advice and guidance was sought from the Archaeological Department in selecting the temples most of which were under their protection," Gamini recalls. The objective was to record accurately for all time the paintings in the condition they were in. Each exposure covered a defined and equal area of the total painting and incorporated a reference colour guide so that any change in the shade and intensity of the resulting transparency could be restored to its original colour.

It took four and a half years to compete the job. Forty temples were covered. The Trust used some of the pictures in the publication, 'The Buddha and His Teachings' by Venerable Narada. In all 110 colour plates were used. The entire material was handed over to the National Archives Department and is available for students, historians, artists and restorers interested in studying these paintings. They were also exhibited here and abroad thereby giving exposure to the rich traditions of Buddhist painting in Sri Lanka.

When President J.R. Jayewardene came to open the inaugural exhibition, he picked a 16'x 21' enlargement of a Mulkirigala temple painting depicting Telapatta Jataka for the Presidential Secretariat where it is on permanent display.

Gamini's second major assignment was for the publication, 'Rock and Wall Paintings of Sri Lanka' by Professor Senaka Bandaranayake. 'Budu Maga' published by Upali Newspapers in memory of founder Upali Wijewardene carried Gamini's photographs. More recently, he covered the Dambulla paintings for a publication by Rangiri Dambulla Foundation and also Bellanvila Murals by Somabandu.

Having successfully completed Volume One of the Sarvodaya Vishva Lekha publication,'The Grandeur of Sinhala Buddhist Art' which covered the classical period, Gamini is now busy with the finishing touches to Volume Two. It will cover the Kandyan era from the 14th to the late 19th century. "33 temples will be featured and I have virtually completed photography. Well-known writer Florence Ratwatte will do the text," Gamini says.

The first volume had an encouraging response and Gamini is confident that the second one will do even better. In the list of selected temples are Medawala, Suriyagoda, Lankatilaka, Gangaramaya, Galgamuwa, Yapahuva, Dambadeniya, Ridi Vihara, Talawa, Dowa, Nagolla (in Kurunegala) and Kelaniya (the early paintings.Volume Three will cover the modern period and Gamini will concentrate on temples down South.

It has been a long journey for Gamini. He has done with his camera what eminent painter L.T. P Manjusri did with his paint brush. "I always walk into the 'budu-ge', offer flowers and worship the Buddha before I start work. I always pray that mine is a good deed and that it should succeed. It has never failed me," he says.

Back to Top  Back to Plus  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.