Words of the week, Romani

Recently I’ve encountered “vardo”, a Romani word for a traditional decorated caravan. The word is stated as having been imported from “woerdon” in Ossetian, an East Iranian language.

I’ve been interested in Romani since I discovered how close quite a few of the words for numbers in Bengali are to their equivalents in Romani. Not so much was known about the passage of the Roma from east to west until the nineteenth century when scholars drew attention to the cultural, physical and linguistic affinities between the Roma in the West and groups of the Indian population. Before that, there was an incorrect assumption that they had originated in Egypt (hence “gypsy”).

It is still the case that much of that distant migration is poorly known and the Romani language has not attracted the same attention as Hebrew or Greek, despite its importance in the transmission of language from east to west.

I found a useful article by Dr Harish K. Thakur, associate professor at the Government College Sunni in Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, “Theories of Roma Origins and the Bengal Linkage”, where he sees groups moving (or being moved as slaves) from east to west not just in  a single movement from N.W. India but in movements over a period from various places in northern India, including Bengal.

It would be interesting to look at the origin (etymology) of the large number of words in Romani that were incorporated from many languages as they made their west with long stops on the way to see if these words could be grouped in any way, which would perhaps provide more information about their journey. You’d need to know more about the various dialects and variants of Romany and the structure of the language to do this but it seems a fascinating under-researched area.

And now for something completely different,…I used the word “throes” earlier today, probably the first time for ages that I’ve given that word an airing (or mouthing, perhaps). There is apparently a rare singular word “throe”, meaning pain or pang. According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, hoth words have their origins in the Old English “thrawu” which relates to Old High German “drawa” meaning threat. According to the Collins English Dictionary, there is also Old Norse “thrä” meaning “desire”, and “thrauka” meaning endure. The Concise Oxford is less certain and tells us that “in the throes of” is perhaps related to OE “threa”, “thrawu” (defined as calamity), influenced by “throwian” suffer.

The larger “Shorter English Dictionary” tells us also that throes was used by Walter Scott (“The throes of a mortal and painful disorder”) and by C. Sangster (“Tumultuous throes, Of some vast grief”) and J.P. Stern Wright (“Winter’s last throes before spring sets in”).

I’ve also checked “mountebank”, a word I’ve seen before but never bothered to check. It is defined as a person who sells quack medicine in public places or more generally as a quack or charlatan. The origin is given as the Italian word “montambianco”, climber on a bench, which I found rather fine.

And in these pandemonic times, “fomites” and “fomitic” might be useful, being objects or materials likely to carry infection and deriving from Latin “fomentum” poultice or lotion according to the Concise Oxford, although “fomes”, tinder in Latin, is mentioned in Collins.

I’ve just finished reading Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum, which I took to Gdansk and back unread (even more optimistically I took Die Blechtrummel with me). I thought I’d read it years ago but now believe that pre-modern DK probably gave up after a few pages as otherwise I would have remembered some of the more striking episodes, I enjoyed it and was impressed.

I moved on to the late Torgny Lindgren’s Minnen as my next bedtime book. I’ve never read anything by him before and somehow never registered who he was (author and member of the Swedish Academy) during my 47 years in Sweden. So perhaps, thanks to Covid which has created plenty of time for reading, I am filling this lacuna. I’ve also learnt a new Swedish word from him “lägra”, meaning to have illicit sexual intercourse with someone, Esselte’s Swedish dictionary adding coyly in italics as an example of the depth of depravity “klockaren lägrade prästens piga” (the bellringer had sexual intercourse with the priest’s maid”).

And, in my more serious moments, I have continued reading the Economist’s The City, A Guide to London’s Global Financial Centre. I’ve had it for a long time and almost thought it was too old to be of use. But then I realised it contained a great number of interesting statistics, some of which derived from regular measurements, thus providing an interesting well structured basis for comparison if I can find the up-to-date statistic, which might not be too difficult. I’ll save this for another posting.

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