Malay Contributions to English, pt. 3


Recently, the Congress of the United States of America preserved the pride and culture of our great land by passing a resolution renaming French Fries “Freedom Fries”. Yes, they did. This of course was due to France’s unwillingness to support the war on Iraq. But members of the Coalition of the Unwilling are still at large, infiltrating our national foods and imperiling the purity of the language we use to describe them. Yes, my fellow Americans, I’m talking about that most American of condiments, that most suitable companion to our cherished Freedom Fries, Ketchup! Ketchup, red as the stripes on our flag, is taken from a Malaysian word; Malaysia, a country steadfast in opposition to our nice little war.

After the initial shock fades, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the word for a condiment should come from Malaysia. Europeans went to all corners of the Earth, circumnavigated the globe, just to get spices from the Malay archipelago to put a little flavor into their bland, tasteless cuisine. Pepper, clove, cinnamon, star anise; empires rose and fell in pursuit of these. Why, after all that effort, now that all these wondrous spices are available cheap and in abundance, is American food so dull? I can’t answer that.

But back to Ketchup! Ketchup comes from the Malay word kicap, pronounced kee-chap. It means a soy-based sauce, some sweet, some salty, some with oyster or anchovy extract, all usually with MSG these days unfortunately, and none with tomatoes. I’ll let Bartleby take it from there:

Sailors seem to have brought the sauce to Europe, where it was made with locally available ingredients such as the juice of mushrooms or walnuts. At some unknown point, when the juice of tomatoes was first used, ketchup as we know it was born. But it is important to realize that in the 18th and 19th centuries ketchup was a generic term for sauces whose only common ingredient was vinegar. The word is first recorded in English in 1690 in the form catchup, in 1711 in the form ketchup, and in 1730 in the form catsup. All three spelling variants of this foreign borrowing remain current.

I have learned to listen closely to distinguish the two words, since my two-year old will sometimes take ketchup on her scrambled eggs, and will sometimes take kicap, and woe unto he who is betwixt the two confused. Woe, I say.

[Image: GorillaAttack/Shutterstock]

Malay Contributions to English, pt 2

With the war in mind, here is the next installment: Amok, usually seen as “run amok”. It tends to be used in English to mean out of control, but the dictionary meaning is the same in English as it is in Malay:

In a frenzy to kill; in a violent rage; bloodlust; berserk

Let’s use it in a sentence! “A disgruntled Marine went amok and fragged his superiors’ tents.”

Update: Major Boggs gives us the common American usage, out of control, in today’s New York Times:

“Let’s not get gun happy here,” Major Boggs cautioned the officers under the tarp that was the command center, quickly heating under the midmorning sun. “We are running amok. We’re suppressing him, probably, but we’re not killing him.”


In Indonesia, I’m told,  bule is a common nickname for foreigners. That’s not really in use over here that I can tell (maybe it is, just not to my face). What I get called most often is orang putih, white man. It’s not the least bit derogatory, and I don’t mind being referred to that way. I never cared much for “Caucasian” as an ethnic designation anyway. What I find funny is when it is used as a synonym for English, as when a shopkeeper will turn to his helper when I come in and say, “you go help him, I don’t speak white man“. It makes me ticklish every time I hear it used that way.

But my favorite term for foreigner is Mat Salih [or Salleh]. It’s slightly derogatory, since it could mean stranger or weirdo depending on who’s hurling it. What I like about it is the Mat. Muhammad is an extremely common first name, so much so that most people go by their middle names instead. Some people will even have an abbreviated form on their birth certificates, like Muhd. Arif bin Muhd. Azhari. With all these Muhammads floating around, it makes sense that a nickname would arise: Mat, short for Muhammad, from strong emphasis on the last syllable. Mat is used like John or Jack, a generic name, as in John Q. Public or John Doe. So you have Mat Dispatch, a comic book character delivery boy; or Mat Smart (that rhymes), a nerd; Mat Kool, a cartoon gorilla in ice cream advertisements; and Mat Salih. Lots of guys have silly nicknames starting with Mat too, like Mat Gun, who went to military school or Mat Panjang, a tall kid. If you know any more Mat- nicknames, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Old Sister Bird

The Malaysian language, Bahasa Malaysia, has contributed a small but interesting number of words to English. I’d like to start an occasional series on them, starting with the Cockatoo. Now, many of you may first think of an irritating pop band, but that’d be the Cocteau Twins. The Cockatoo is a parrot-like bird found here in the archipelago. It’s name here is Burung Kakak Tua, which means Old Sister Bird, and it is the subject of one of my favorite Malay nursery rhymes.

Burung Kakak Tua
Hinggap di Jendela
Nenek sudah tua
Giginya tinggal dua
Le-chum, Le-chum, Le-chum hoo la laa
Le-chum, Le-chum, Le-chum hoo la laa
Le-chum, Le-chum, Le-chum hoo la laaaaa
Burung Kakak Tu-aaaa!

Which I translate as

Old Sister Bird
Perched on the window sill
Grandma is now quite old
Of her teeth, only two remain
Le-chum, Le-chum, Le-chum hoo la laa
Le-chum, Le-chum, Le-chum hoo la laa
Le-chum, Le-chum, Le-chum hoo la laaaaa
Old Sis-ter Birrrrd!

Of course, I’d love to sing it for you, but I’m restricted by the medium. And, uh, by the fact that I can’t carry a tune. But there you have it, the Cockatoo.