Of ghost crabs, frogmouths and Trincomalee wood

By Richard Boyle

“What on earth is poon?” “Puckauly? Is that a vegetable?” “Is a racer a race-horse?”These questions have been posed regarding some of the words in the N-R range that I wasn’t able to cover in “The nettle-grub and the ratemahatmaya” (The Sunday Times, October 2, 2011) on the seemingly endless revision of words of Sri Lankan origin or association in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED2) for the online third edition (OED3).

So here’s another batch of words, especially those queried. Before I start, I should remind readers that my main responsibility in the revision was/is to evaluate definitions and search for illustrative quotations from literature to include in the entries, the most important being the first-known reference, the antedating, and the last-known, the postdating, all of which tell the history of the word’s usage, and possible nuances of meaning and evolution of spelling.

To begin with there is nooser, which in OED2 is defined as “One who uses a noosed rope, esp. for catching elephants”. The antedating reference is from James Emerson Tennent’s Ceylon (1859): “The head-man of the ‘cooroowe’, or noosers, crept in.” The OED3 has the same definition except that “one” has been replaced with “person”, and Tennent remains as the first-known writer to employ the word.
In OED2, the definition of oil-bird is “A Frogmouth of Ceylon, Batrachostamus moniliger”, and the antedating quotation is from 1893.

"Water Carrier" (1808) by Samuel Daniel. Note the puckauly/pakhali bags: Colombo was supplied with water by this method

However, in OED3 the hyphenation has been dropped – oilbird – and the revised antedating quotation I found is also from Tennent’s Ceylon (1859): “Batrachostomus monoliger. The oil-bird; was discovered amongst the precipitous rocks of the Adam’s Peak range by Mr Layard.” This bird is now known as the Sri Lanka Frogmouth as it has slit-like nostrils and a large head with the eyes facing forward to provide binocular vision. In Sinhala it is called madi-mahuna, but I’m not sure of the Tamil name, or, crucially, why the creature was called oilbird for a period of time.

Oilbird is therefore labelled obsolete, while others I shall examine are labelled rare or historical, but the OED’s aim is to document the history of the language, so no such entries are omitted. The words examined here are lesser-known and distinctly curious compared to those examined in my previous revision excursion, such as perahera, poya, and puja.

There are 128 quotations culled from Tennent’s Ceylon in OED3 entries, followed by 92 from Robert Knox’s An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681), and lastly 13 from Leonard Woolf’s The Village in the Jungle (1913). (Not all the quotations are of words of Sri Lankan origin or association.) Remarkably and coincidentally, this trio is as it should be, for as E.F.C. Ludowyk (1948) remarked: “Of all the records of Ceylon in English – whether one thinks of novels or documents – the most impressive is Knox’s book. What have we to place beside it? Only Tennent’s omniscience and Woolf’s sensitiveness.” (See the Introduction to this writer’s Knox’s Words (2004).)

The OED2 definition of omander (etymology unknown), “A name of an East Indian ebony obtained from the tree Diospyros Ebenaster: akin to calamander”, has been revised to “The ebony of commerce, obtained from the Ceylon ebony (Diospyros ebenum) of India and Sri Lanka [Sinhala kaluwara, Tamil karunkali]. Also omander-wood.”

Puckauly (etymology <Hindi pakhali water-carrier < pakhal water-skin) is defined in OED2 as “A water-carrier; also a water skin”, both captured so admirably in Samuel Daniell’s painting “Water Carrier” (1808). The postdating quotation is from Robert Percival’s An Account of the Island of Ceylon (1803): “Water. . .brought by means of bullocks in leathern bags, called here puckally bags.” Colombo was supplied with water by this method at the beginning of the 19th century. The change in spelling of the word to pakhali in OED3 now reflects its Hindi origins, divests it of Anglo-Indian mutilation, and is based on post-Percival references from the early 20th century (Percival’s reference, however, has been expunged). The revised definition reads: “In South Asia (esp. India): a person employed to dispense water from leather bags carried on the back of a bullock. Also: (more fully puckauly bag).”

The OED2 definition of palankeen, palanquin (etymology < Portuguese palanquim) is “A covered litter or conveyance, usually for one person, used in India and other Eastern countries, consisting of a large box with wooden shutters like Venetian blinds, carried by four or six (rarely two) men by means of poles projecting before and behind”. There are no quotations from literature pertaining to Sri Lanka, despite there being many, probably because the widespread use of the conveyance in the East meant a superfluity of literary references. The OED3 definition has been simplified: “A covered conveyance, usually for one person, consisting of a large box carried on two horizontal poles by four or six (rarely two) bearers, used esp. in South, South-East, and East Asia.”

Palmyra (etymology < Portuguese palmeira palm tree) is defined in OED2 as “A species of palm (Borassus flabelliformis), with rounded fan-shaped leaves, and large roundish drupes each containing three seeds; commonly cultivated in India and Ceylon [Sinhala tal, Tamil panai], and important for its variety of uses.”The meticulousness of the OED is demonstrated by an explanatory note beneath the definition: “The wood is used as timber; the leaves for thatch, matting, hats, baskets, umbrellas, fans, paper, etc.; the sap yields wine (toddy) and sugar (jaggery); the outer pulp of the fruit is eaten roasted or made into jelly; the seedling plants are used as food, etc.”

The revision, however, is somewhat radical. It’s much shorter, reference to the seeds is dropped, the explanatory note deemed unnecessary, and the cultivation in “India and Ceylon” has been broadened: “A tall palm, Borassus flabellifer, with large fan-shaped leaves, native to southern Asia and widely cultivated for a variety of purposes.”

Supporting the compound palmyra tree there is an illustrative quotation from A. Sivanandan’s novel When Memory Dies (1997): “A. maze of lanes that spun you past scrubs and bushes and palmyrah trees”, and for palmyra fibre there is a financial report from the Times (1898): “Ceylon ballots sold well. .”
The OED2 definition of pandaram (etymology Tamil pantaram), “A low-caste Hindu ascetic mendicant; also applied to the low-caste Hindu priests of S India and Ceylon”, is supported by a postdating quotation from Tennent’s Ceylon (1859): “A little temple. . .in which consecrated serpents were tenderly reared by the Pandarams.” The revision demonstrates the improved way in which usage, if localised, is now stated first in definitions, rather than last, as often occurred in OED2: “In southern India and Sri Lanka: an ascetic mendicant or low-caste Hindu priest.” I found the postdating quotation in C. Rasanayagam’s Ancient Jaffna (1926): “The only indigenous musical instrument now available in Jaffna is the ‘udukku’, which can be seen in the hands of mendicant pandarams.”

Petwood (etymology: alteration of Burmese name hpet-wun or pet-woon) is an oddity. OED2 states: “A large timber tree, Berrya Ammonilla or mollis, family Tiliaceæ, found in Burma, Southern India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines; also its timber, called also Trincomalee wood.” The Sinhala name halmilla for the species is familiar, “Trincomalee wood” not so. (The Tamil name is chavandalai.) There is an entry for Trincomalee in OED2, not yet revised, which frustratingly lacks any illustrative quotations from literature pertaining to the island.

To rectify this, I forwarded two postdating quotations from the island’s literature for possible inclusion in the revision. For instance, the anonymous officer (Horatio Suckling) explains in Ceylon, A General Description of an Island, Historical, Physical, Statistical (1876): “The ‘hallmillia’ (Berrya amomilla) is a fine straight tree about 40 feet high, with winged seeds, found chiefly in the drier parts of the island, and exported in large quantities from Trincomalee to India, where it is known as Trincomalee wood.” Then there is Alan Walters, who writes in Palms and Pearls, Or Scenes in Ceylon (1892): “The Halmileel or Halmilla (Berrya amornilla), called sometimes Trincomalee wood, valuable for cask staves, and growing with straight stem to a height of 40 feet; from it are made the Madras surf boats.”

Pleonaste (etymology French pléonaste) will be familiar to gemmologists. The OED2 definition, “A synonym of CEYLONITE, a variety of spinel”, has an explanatory note: “From the multitude of faces of the crystal, each solid angle of the octahedron being often replaced by four faces.” There is an entry for Ceylonite/Ceylanite (etymology French ceylanite , < Ceylan): “A ferruginous variety of spinel from Ceylon; Iron-Magnesia Spinel.” The OED3 revision of pleonaste reads: “A dark green, brown, or black ferroan [mineral] variety of spinel. Also called ceylonite.”

Poon (etymology: the OED2 “Sinhala puna”- the tree is known as domba in Sinhala - has been revised to “Tamil punnai)”. It is defined in OED2 as: “One of several large East Indian trees of the genus Calophyllum, esp. C. Inophyllum; also, the timber furnished by these trees, used for masts and spars, and for building purposes.” The revision reads: “More fully poon tree: any of several large Indo-Malayan trees of genus Calophyllum (family Clusiaceae (Guttiferae)), esp. the Alexandrian laurel, C inophyllum. Also: the timber of any of these trees, used for masts and spars and for building purposes.” In Sri Lanka it is also used for building carts.

There is a compound, poon oil, defined as “thick, dark green oil with a strong scent and bitter taste, expressed from the seeds of Calophyllum inophyllum and used medicinally [rheumatism, etc.] and for burning in lamps”. In another compound a quotation states “the seeds an abundant oil in Ceylon”, known as “domba oil”.

Poonac (etymology: the OED2 “Tamil Punnakku, Sinhala Punakku” has been revised to “Sinhala punakku and its etymon Tamil punnakku”). The OED2 definition is: “The oil-cake or mass left after the oil has been expressed from coco-nut pulp: used as fodder or manure.” The unlikely antedating is from 1890 and the postdating from the Tropical Agriculturalist (1927): “As regards Phosphorus, there are many food-stuffs, available in Ceylon, rich in this element. For example, the various poonacs and pollard.”

The location deficiency, as I term it, is corrected in the revision: “Chiefly in Sri Lanka: oilcake made from coconut pulp or various kinds of seed, mainly used as animal fodder.” Furthermore my suspicion regarding the accuracy of the antedating and postdating quotations was well-founded. J.W. Bennett writes in Ceylon and its Capabilities (1843): “Ceylon poultry, when fed by natives, invariably tastes of Poonac, or coco-nut oil cake, which imparts an oily flavour to whatever is fed on it.” And in 2000 I found in the Sunday Leader: “In addition to poonac, local farmers use a mineral mixture which is mostly made from fish.” This entry has now become more truly Sri Lankan.

Proponent 2 is rather loosely defined in OED2 as, “A kind of government agent in Ceylon under the Dutch”, which has been vastly improved upon in the revision: “In certain Dutch colonies, esp. Ceylon (now Sri Lanka): a man employed and licensed by the Government to carry out certain religious duties in the Dutch Reformed Church.” There is an illustrative quotation from James Selkirk’s Recollections of Ceylon (1844): “Those who perform the marriage ceremony, and by licence from government even administer baptism, are called Proponents.”

The location deficiency of the OED2 definition of punatoo (etymology: ultimately [probably via Sinhala] > Tamil panattu), “The preserved pulp of the fruit of the palmyra palm, used as food”, is corrected in the revision: “In Sri Lanka: the edible pulp of the fruit of the palmyra palm pressed into cakes and dried.” A descriptive quotation from the Directory of Trade Products (1858) states: “Punatoo, a name in Ceylon for the preserved pulp of the fruit of the palmyra, washed, pressed, and dried on mats in the sun.” I discovered another in Tennent’s Ceylon (1859): “The prevailing practice is to extract it [sc. the pulp] by pressure, and convert it into poonatoo, by drying it in squares in the sun.”

Lastly, for space has run out even though there other revised words still to be examined, is racer, defined in OED2 as “Any animal having great speed . . .the name of a sand-crab . . .” and revised as “Any of various swift-running crabs of the genus Ocypode; a ghost crab”, with one quotation from J.G. Wood’s Homes without Hands (1865): “Another Land Crab, which. . .is popularly called the Racer, is a native of Ceylon.” Further information about this species would be of interest.

(Note: OED3 is only available online to subscribers)

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