The nettle-grub and the ratemahatmaya

Richard Boyle recounts the revision of the Oxford English Dictionary and the inclusion of common Lankan words

When at the turn of the century I began to assist as a volunteer with the revision of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), specifically the 90-odd entries of words of Sri Lankan origin or association contained in the 1989 second edition (OED2) and to be included in the ongoing online-limited third edition (OED3), it was thought the task would take a decade to complete. That decade having elapsed, and with only a handful of letters concluded, there is no new estimate as the revision and addition of neologisms has exceeded all expectation. As with the original edition, which took 50 years to complete, many working on the revision may never witness the conclusion.

Honoured with the appointment as the Sri Lankan English consultant, I began the public documentation of the revision of the words of Sri Lankan origin or association with “Beginning with the Letter M” (The Sunday Times, December 6, 2009), which readers should refer to for the OED background, details of my method of revision, and why the work began with the letter M rather than A). In the past few years the word range N–R has been finished, so the time has come to continue my documentation. However, as 56 words fall into this category, I shall consider only the most important, especially those that are common in Sri Lankan English.

In my publication Knox’s Words (2004), a glossary that examines the history of the 26 words (now increased by one) that Robert Knox brought to the English language (the universal Buddha, rattan and puja among them) in his An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681), and which are recorded in the OED, I wrote:

“The illustrative quotations supporting many of the Knox words in the OED2 are often from literature with no direct relevance to Sri Lanka, such as general reference works. Yet there is an extraordinary wealth of more pertinent and more interesting references to be found in English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka. The under-representation of this literature will hopefully be rectified during the revision programme so that the illustrative quotations given for the Knox words in the OED3 reflect the major sources with greater accuracy.”

This deficiency extends to all the words of Sri Lankan origin or association, not just Knox’s words. Fortunately, as will be demonstrated by many of the entries I examine, the under-representation has been rectified to a great degree. Reading through scores of 19th century books on Ceylon (Percival, Davy, Bennett, Tennent, etc.) as part of my research turned out to be worthwhile, for many of the illustrative quotations I found have been included in the entries.

However, a more significant achievement (by the editors) is the way in which Sri Lanka has been identified as the source of words, something often woefully lacking in OED2. For example, the definition of pansala in OED2, “A Buddhist temple or monastery; orig., a forest hut constructed from leaves”, now reads “In Sri Lanka: the dwelling or hermitage of a Buddhist monk; the living-quarters of a Buddhist monastery”, etc. Such considerable improvement, plus the several additional words that will be, or have been included (adigar, malkoha, murunga, polonga,), will appreciably enhance the representation of the words of Sri Lankan origin or association, and serve as an essential guide to the historical aspect of Sri Lankan English.

Ratemahatmaya- from Ceylon and the Cingalese- Sirr 1850

Starting with nettle-grub, the minimal OED2 definition “A stinging caterpillar injurious to the tea-plant” has been replaced by the informative “Caterpillar of any of several South Asian moths of the family Limacodidae, esp. Parasa lepida and Natada nararia, which has stinging hairs and is a pest of the tea plant”. The antedating (earliest) quotation, which indicates first known use of the word, is as late as 1890, and the postdating (most recent) quotation used is one I happened upon in the Island (2004): “Shot-hole borer; tea-tortrix; low-country nettle grubs; other nettle grubs [etc.].”

Sri Lankans will be surprised that the OED2 entry for ola was spelt olla. A raft of more recent quotations spelt in the conventional fashion has led to an overhaul: ola it now is (etymology: Dutch ola or Portuguese ola < Malayalam ola , Tamil olai . Compare Italian olla ). Furthermore, the definition, which omitted Sri Lanka as a principal place of use, has been revised thus: “A palm leaf, esp. a leaf or strip of a leaf of the palmyra, traditionally used in Southern India and Sri Lanka for writing on; (also) a letter or document written on such a leaf.” The postdating quotation is from Romesh Gunasekera’s Reef (1998): “How far do you get reading ola-leaf books by moonlight and going slowly blind?”

The OED2 definition of pandal, “A shed, booth, or arbour, esp. for temporary use” has been considerably expanded: “In South Asia (orig. in southern areas): a shed, booth, shelter, or triumphal arch, esp. for temporary use (at a festival, etc.); a marquee; spec. (among Hindus and Parsees) a tent or booth for a marriage, in which the bridal couple are initially separated by a curtain.” Two illustrative quotations I suggested have been included. The first is from John Capper’s The Duke of Edinburgh in Ceylon (1871): “There were enough cocoa-nuts in and about that pandhal of the Southern Province to keep the Hultsdorf oil-mills at work for a week. The second is from Bella Woolf’s How to See Ceylon (1914): “You may see outside a wedding house a pandal of bamboos and fluttering coconut leaves. The pandal is a native triumphal arch.”

The Sri Lanka-oriented revision of the definition for pansala (etymology <Sinhala pansala <Pali pannasala <Sanskrit parnasala) has already been mentioned. However, there is another aspect of the revision process that applies in this instance. One of the major concerns is finding the first quotation in order to date the inception of the word in print: a fair percentage of the OED2 entries are inaccurate in this respect. With pansala, the OED2 antedating quotation was from 1850, but I found two earlier quotations in J.W. Bennett’s Ceylon and its Capabilities (1843), “The Buddhist priests . . . allowed depots of nuts to be formed at the various Panselas,” and in John Davy’s Account of the Interior of Ceylon (1821), “There is generally a neat pansol or dwelling-house for priests.”

The OED2 definition of parangi (etymology: Sinhala parangi [lede], lit. ‘(disease of) foreigners’, i.e. the Portuguese . . . from Portuguese Frangue, name given by the Moors to Frenchmen, Spaniards, and European Christians generally) is “The name given in Sri Lanka to a disease now known to be identical with yaws.” The revised entry provides two senses: 1. “In Sri Lanka: a contagious tropical disease, yaws,” and 2. “Usually derogatory. In South India and Sri Lanka: a European; a Christian, esp. an Indian or Sri Lankan one; a person of mixed Indian or Sri Lankan and European heritage.” The first sense includes a quotation from Leonard Woolf’s The Village in the Jungle (1913): “There were few in the village without the filthy sores of parangi, their legs eaten out to the bone with the yellow, sweating ulcers.” (OED2 contains 13 quotations from Woolf’s novel.) The postdating quotation for the second sense demonstrates that the editors now draw from a wider range of sources, including the internet: Re: Non-cooly websites in soc.culture.sri-lanka (2000), “Now you don't want to own up to your white or fair skinned parangi heritage.”

Where patana (etymology: <Sinhala patana <Sanskrit patana, Pali patana fall, descent) is concerned, the OED2 definition, “A glade in the jungle-covered mountainous districts of Ceylon, usually with sloping sides”, has undergone subtle ecological revision: “An upland plain or slope of grassland in the montane forest areas of Sri Lanka.” The first-known quotation, from Samuel Baker’s The Rifle and the Hound in Ceylon (1854), remains. However, the OED2 postdating quotation was from 1880, whereas I provided the following from J.L.A. Webb’s Tropical Pioneers (2002): “The patana grasses grow actively at the start of a monsoon season, and then slow as the monsoon draws to an end.”

The OED2 definition of perahera (Sinhala perahera protection, safety), “In Sri Lanka: a procession, orig. of a religious (Hindu, later also Buddhist) character, of praise or thanksgiving, or of intercession” has been altered to: “In Sri Lanka: a religious procession. Now chiefly (in form Perahera): spec. a ten-day series of torchlight processions occurring annually in the town of Kandy. Also: a secular procession or parade of celebration.”

The thoroughness of the revision is demonstrated by an explanatory note beneath the definition: “The processions in Kandy occur in the Hindu month Ashadha, and fall in July or August, depending on the full moon; drummers, dancers, acrobats, and richly decorated elephants process with a relic of a sacred tooth, believed to come from the Buddha.”Perahera is a word first used in the English language by Knox (1681): “That they may . . . honour these Gods, and procure their aid and assistance, they do yearly in the Month of June or July, at a New Moon, observe a solemn feast and general Meeting, called Perahar.” The illustrative quotations in OED2 included one by Leonard Woolf and another from D.H. Lawrence’s poem Elephant: “But the best is the Pera-hera, at midnight, under the tropical stars . . . the Pera-hera procession, flambeaux aloft in the tropical night,” which sadly, in my opinion, has been expunged from OED3.

The OED2 definition of Pettah, “A town or village lying outside of or around a fort, but itself sometimes partially fortified”, with no quotation from local literature, has been satisfactorily changed to “In Sri Lanka and southern India: a town or village lying outside or around a fort, and itself sometimes partly fortified.” Furthermore, it includes a quotation from Robert Percival’s An Account of the Island of Ceylon (1803): “The pettah of Colombo deserves particular notice, from its extent and superior structure.”
“A spicy Indonesian dish”, which is the OED2 definition of pol sambol, has always baffled me, even though sambal is Malay in origin. Moreover, the word is supported by just two illustrative quotations, both from local publications, Housewife (1962) and the Ceylon Daily Mirror (1971). The revision, however, makes amends: “In Sri Lankan cookery: an uncooked condiment consisting of shredded coconut, onion, chillies, and lime juice.” And an antedating quotation from J. Vijayatunga’s Island Story (1949) has been added, as has a post-dating quotation from Shyama Perera’s Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet (1999).

The entry for polonga has special meaning for me as I suggested its inclusion, based on the argument that as tic-polonga (a Knox word) was recognised, the relative equal use of polonga warranted its inclusion. The definition reads: “In Sri Lanka: a venomous snake, spec. Russell's viper, Daboia russelii.” Polonga is another Knox word as the antedating quotation (1681) confirms: “There is another venomous Snake called Polongo, the most venomous of all, that kills Cattel. Two sorts of them have I seen, the one green, the other a reddish gray, full of white rings along the side, and about five or six feet long.” I found two other quotations from lesser-known literature pertaining to Ceylon. The first is from Jacob Haafner’s Travels on Foot through the Island of Ceylon (1821): “The boys all called out together – ‘Polonga! Polonga!’ – and at the same time drawing me back by my clothes, they saved me from almost certain death.” The second is from William Dalton’s novel Lost in Ceylon (1861): “There [I] saw two serpents: one a polonga, of reddish grey, about five feet in length; the other, noya, or cobra, about four feet in length.” With the addition of a quotation by P.E.P. Deraniyagala, a truly Sri Lankan entry has been created.

Poya (etymology: Sinhala poya, from Sanskrit upavasatha fast day) is defined in OED2 as “In full, poya day: a day on which the moon enters one of its four phases, observed as a day of special religious observance by Buddhists in Sri Lanka.” The revision is minimal: “observance” is replaced by “significance”. The first use is still considered to be from R.S. Hardy’s Manual of Buddhism (1853), but the postdating quotation has been shifted from an issue of the Times Weekender (1971), “He had obviously stoked up in anticipation of a dry Poya day ahead”, to Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost (2000): “Thank God it’s not a full moon. Poya days are the worst. Everyone thinks they can see. They go out and step on something.”

The OED2 entry poojah, puja, another Knox word, has sensibly been revised to puja (etymology: <Sanskrit puja homage, worship). The original definition was “Rites performed in the worship of Hindu deities; any Hindu religious ceremony or rite; also fig. (in ridicule)”. There are now two senses, the second describing a Bengali festival, the first either a. “In south Asia: a religious ceremony, a ceremonial offering to a god; an act of private or public worship,” which surprisingly doesn’t add Buddhism to Hinduism but ignores them both, and b. “to do (also make) puja: to perform an act of worship; to make an offering to a god. Also in extended use.”

Fittingly, Knox (1681) provides the first known use for both: “In this Poujah or Sacrifice the King seems to take delight.” The quotation I provided from literature concerning Sri Lanka is from William McGowan’s Only Man is Vile (1993): “The ritual, it seemed, was taking place on its own. The first part, called a puja, involved veneration of the [Buddha’s] tooth and was performed to demonstrate a commitment to protect it”.

The OED2 definition of ratemahatmaya, “A chief headman of a Kandyan district, has been changed to “In central Sri Lanka: a local chief or headman” presumably to avoid puzzlement regarding Kandy. Illustrative quotations have been extracted from John Davy’s Account of the Interior of Ceylon (1821), Major Forbes’ Eleven Years in Ceylon (1841), and Leonard Woolf’s The Village in the Jungle (1913). The postdating quotation, originally from 1956, is now from the Australian (Nexis) (2000): “Sirimavo Ratwatte was born in Ratnapura, the daughter of a Sinhalese landowner, Dissawa Barnes Ratwatte, who was ratemahatmaya (head) of the district.”

(Words not examined: nelumbium, nooser, oil-bird, omander, palanquin, palmyra, pandaram, peon, petwood, pleonaste, poon, poonac, Pothos, proponent 2., puckauly, punatoo, racer 2.b., rattan 1.a., rattan 2.a., red-tailed gallinule, rest-house, rilawa, rillow, rix-dollar 2., robin, rock snake, rock squirrel, rogue 5.a., rubiginous cat, ruby spar, rupee .)

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