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.

Malaysian Nasheed

Malaysian Nasheed - Raihan

[UPDATE: I have gone on to translate a fair number of Malaysian nasheeds and pop tunes.  You can browse them with the nasheed and nasyid tags, check out the language category, or do a site search for things like lyrics.]

I just can’t keep up with the number of new music groups singing nasheed here in Malaysia. There must be at least a dozen groups that have debuted since the last time I was here. Raihan, Rabbani and Hijjaz continue to penetrate western Islamic goods catalogues. For those of us non-malays the biggest obstacle to appreciating the music is the original material in Malay language. So I was happy to find Nasheed World, a website dedicated to translating Nasheed lyrics into English. There’s plenty there to explore, but from a quick look, I’d say the quality of translation is good. Here’s their translation from the very beautiful track

“Odei Anak” by Raihan on the Syukur album:

Dear child do you understand
How fearful it is for the pregnant mother?
Dear child do you know
How painful it was for your mother to give birth to you?
Dear child do you know
How difficult it was for your mother to bear you?
Dear child do you know
How painful it is to give birth to you?
However, your birth entertains the heart
Cared and pampered for everyday
Irregular sleeping hours at night
But it does not matter because you are loved
Days have passed
As you have grown
A mother is getting older
However, still sacrificing to make a living
So you would have a better futureNow you are an adult and your mother has passed away
Time has passed as if it is calling out to you
Have you given her your love?
Have all her good deeds been repaid?
Paradise lies at her feet…Only good children
Can give their love
Only good children
Can pray for your afterlife

That site led me to Nasyid Online, which has a good selection of songs available to listen. Sepohon Kayu is a good one. It lets you get a feel for the instrumentation and melodies that a lot of the nasheed share; lots of gamelon-type percussion and clear harmonies.

Islamic Books Online

Hizmet Books has lots of islamic books available for free, some in simple html and some in PDF. The english collection is not great, only about a dozen texts, but they are based in Turkey and have books translated into Bosnian, Albanian, Russian, Uzbek, even Polish! What looked like the best book there in English is a translation of THE SAHÂBA by Ahmad Fârûqî. That is, HADRAT IMÂM RABBÂNÎ AHMAD FÂRÛQÎ SERHENDÎ ‘quddisa sirruh’, the Reviver of the Second Millennium. Here is an excerpt:

One day Abû Bakr as-Siddîq ‘radiy-Allâhu ’anh’ came to Rasûlullah’s ‘sall-Allâhu ’alaihi wa sallam’ place. He was about to enter, when Alî bin Abî Tâlib ‘radiy-Allâhu ’anh’ arrived, too. Abû Bakr stepped backwards and said, “After you, Yâ Alî.” The latter replied and the following long dialogue took place between them:

Alî – Yâ Abâ Bakr, you go in first for you are ahead of us all in all goodnesses and acts of charity.

Abû Bakr – You go in first, Yâ Alî, for you are closer to the Messenger of Allah ‘sall-Allâhu ta’âlâ ’alaihi wa sallam’.

Alî – How could I go ahead of you? I heard the Messenger of Allah ‘sall-Allâhu ’alaihi wa sallam’ say, “The sun has not risen on any one of my Ummat higher than Abû Bakr.”

Abû Bakr – How could I go ahead of you? On the day when Rasûlullah ‘sall-Allâhu ’alaihi wa sallam’ gave his daughter Fâtima-t-uz-zahrâ ‘radiy-Allâhu ta’âlâ ’anhâ’ in marriage to you, he stated, “I have given the best of women to the best of men.”

Alî – I cannot go ahead of you, for Rasûlullah ‘sall-Allâhu ’alaihi wa sallam’ stated, “Let him who wants to see Ibrâhîm (Abraham) ‘alaihis-salâm’ look at Abû Bakr’s face.”

Abû Bakr – I can not go ahead of you, for Rasûlullah ‘sall-Allâhu ’alaihi wa sallam’ stated, “Let him who wants to see Âdam’s ‘alaihis-salâm’ tenderness and Yûsuf’s ‘alaihis-salâm’ beautiful moral qualities look at Alî!”

Alî – I can not enter before you. For, the Messenger of Allah ‘alaihis-salâm’ asked, “Yâ Rabbî! Who loves me most, and who is the best of my Sahâba?” Jenâb-i-Haqq answered, “Yâ Muhammad ‘alaihis-salâm’! He is Abû Bakr as-Siddîq.”

Abû Bakr – I can not go ahead of you. For, the Messenger ‘alaihis-salâm’ stated, “So (good) is the person whom I give knowledge that Allâhu ta’âlâ loves him, and so do I; I love him very much.” You have been the gate to the town of knowledge.

Alî – I can not go before you, for the Messenger ‘alaihis-salâm’ stated, “There is a sign that says, ‘Abû Bakr, the Habîbullah (the Darling of Allah),’ on the gates of Paradise.”

Abû Bakr – I cannot go before you. For, during the Holy War of Hayber the Messenger of Allah ‘sall-Allâhu ’alaihi wa sallam’ handed the flag to you and stated, “This flag is a gift from the Melîk-i-ghâlib to Alî bin Abî Tâlib.”

Alî – How can I go before you? The Messenger ‘alaihis-salâm’ said to you, “Yâ Abâ Bakr! You stand for my sight, which sees, and for my heart, which knows.”

Abû Bakr – I can not go ahead of you. For, the Messenger ‘alaihis-salâm’ stated, “On the Rising Day Alî will come (to the place of assembly) on the back of an animal of Paradise. Jenâb-i-Haqq will say, ‘Yâ Muhammad ‘alaihis-salâm’! How beautiful a father your father Ibrâhîm Halîl is; and how beautiful a brother your brother Alî bin Abî Tâlib is.’ ”

Alî – I can not go before you. For, the Messenger ‘alaihis-salâm’ stated, “On the Rising Day the angel named Ridwân, who is the chief of the angels of Paradise, will enter Paradise, coming back with the keys of Paradise. He will give them to me. Then Jebrâîl ‘alaihis-salâm’ will come and say, ‘Yâ Muhammad, give the keys of Paradise and those of Hell to Abû Bakr. Let Abû Bakr send anyone he chooses to Paradise and others to Hell.’ ”

Abû Bakr – I can not go ahead of you, for the Messenger ‘alaihis-salâm’ stated, “Alî will be by my side on the Rising Day. He will be with me near the Hawz and Kawthar. He will be with me on the Sirât. He will be with me in Paradise. And he will be with me (at the happiest moment) as I see Allâhu ta’âlâ.’ ”

Alî – I can not enter before you do, for the Messenger of Allah ‘alaihis-salâm’ stated, “If the îmân held by Abû Bakr were weighed against the total sum of the îmân held by all the other Believers, his îmân would weigh heavier.”

Abû Bakr – How can I go before you? For, the Rasûl ‘alaihis-salâm’ stated, “I am the city of knowledge. And Alî is the gate?”

Alî – How can I ever walk ahead of you? For, the Rasûl ‘alaihis-salâm’ stated, “I am the city of faithfulness. And Abû Bakr is its gate.”

Abû Bakr – I can not go before you, for the Rasûl ‘alaihis-salâm’ stated, “On the Rising Day Alî will be made to mount a beautiful horse. Those who see him will wonder: What prophet is that person? Allâhu ta’âlâ will say: This is Alî bin Abî Tâlib.”

Alî – I can not go ahead of you, for the Rasûl ‘alaihis-salâm’ stated, “I and Abû Bakr are from the same soil. We shall be one again.”

Abû Bakr – I can not go before you, for the Rasûl ‘alaihis-salâm’ stated, “Allâhu ta’âlâ will say: O you, Paradise! I shall adorn your four corners with four people. One of them is Muhammad ‘alaihis-salâm’, the highest of prophets. Another one is Alî, the highest of those who fear Allâhu ta’âlâ. The third one is Fâtima-t-uz-zahrâ, the highest of women. And the fourth corner will be occupied by Hasan and Husayn, the highest of pure people.”

Alî – How can I go ahead of you? The Rasûl ‘alaihis-salâm’ stated, “A voice from the eight Gardens of Paradise calls as follows: O Abâ Bakr, come with those whom you love; and you all, enter Paradise!”

Abû Bakr – I cannot go before you, for the Rasûl ‘alaihis-salâm’ stated, “I am like a tree. Fâtima is the trunk. Alî is the branches. Hasan and Husayn are the fruits.”

Alî – I can not go before you, for the Rasûl ‘alaihis-salâm’ stated, “May Allâhu ta’âlâ forgive all the faults of Abû Bakr. For, he gave his daughter Âisha to me; he helped me during the Hijrat (Hegira, Migration to Medina); he bought Bilâl-i-Habashî, (who was a slave formerly,) and emancipated him for me.” … .

As the two darlings of the Messenger of Allah ‘sall-Allâhu ’alaihi wa sallam’ were talking like this before the door, the Best of Mankind was inside, listening. He interrupted Alî as he was talking and stated from inside:

“O my brothers Abû Bakr and Alî ‘radiy-Allâhu ’anhumâ’! Please do come in! Jebrâîl ‘alaihis-salâm’ has been here; he says that the angels on the earth and in the seven skies have been listening to you and that you could not describe your value in the view of Allâhu ta’âlâ were you to praise each other till the end of the world.” The two beloved companions gave an affectionate hug to each other, and together they entered the presence of the Messenger of Allah ‘sall-Allâhu ’alaihi wa sallam’.

Dalail Khayrat

Now available from Kazi Publications, translated by Hassan Rosowsky with Arabic text alongside, for ten bucks only. Search for “Dalail” from Kazi’s front page and you should find it. Thank you, Hani N!