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《Some Curious Words that I First Met in Wah Yan》__Fong-ying Yu (61)

Some Curious Words that I First Met in Wah Yan

The list: Canton, canteen, catechism, chop, pupil, sampan, ketchup, wallah-wallah, tiffin, mugwump, Timbuktu

I cannot recall exactly the circumstances under which I met the words in the list, but they all came to me in Wah Yan (that I am pretty sure about), and have stayed vivid in my mind for one reason or another.  It is only gradually, later on, much later on, or just about now, when I looked them up in dictionaries, that their exact meanings face me squarely and I come to have a clearer understanding of them.

With three reference books on hand, I can now unravel their mysteries, and lay their ghosts of confusion and puzzlement to rest, to leave behind only their romance. The dictionaries are Hobson-Jobson, Anglo-Indian Colloquial Words and Phrases and of Kindred Terms, by Col. Henry Yule and A.C. Burnell, new edition by William Crooke, New Delhi, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1984 (first published by John Murray of London, 1903); Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE), eds. Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson, second edition, 2003; and A Dictionary of Hong Kong English, by Patrick J. Cummings and Hans-Georg Wolf, HK: HKU Press, 2011. 

Canton.  What bugged me was that it sounded like “Kwang-tung” the province and not “Kwang-chau” the city. Moreover, the dictionary said it is “a political or administrative subdivision of a country; a state in the Swiss Confederation”. And the capital of a province is certainly a political and administrative subdivision.  Hobson-Jobson reveals the reason for my confusion. “The great seaport of Southern China, the chief city of the Province of Kwang-tung, whence we take the name, through the Portuguese, whose older writers called it Cantao”.  In the cited sources, it was spelt as Cantao in 1516, Camton in 1535, and Canton in 1585. (I don’t know Portuguese.) The first English citation in 1727 was Canton. Today it is still used but in the ODE, defined as “variant of Guangzhou”.

Canteen.  We had no trouble calling the cafeteria in the then new building proudly facing Waterloo Road the canteen. It sounds Chinese and I wondered if it was like se tor (store).  No, it is “chiefly British,” “a restaurant provided by an organization such as a college, factory of company for its students or staff.”  The origin is from Italian cantina (cellar). (ODE)

Catechism.  It was a difficult word, difficult to say and to spell for a primary 6/form 1 pupil, but we learned it without much difficulty because some classmates had religious lessons outside of the subject Biblical Knowledge.  I understood it to mean a set of religious instructions to learn before baptism and that was more or less right. “A summary of the principles of Christian religion in the form of questions and answers, used for religious instruction; (in Roman Catholic use) religious instructions in general,” “from ecclesiastical Latin catechismus, from ecclesiastical Greek katekhizein”. (ODE) There is an adjective catechismal and a verb catchechize, which I had not come across and have never used.

Chop. Chop is a word I learned whose meaning I took for granted until I taught English and found that the meaning I had in mind was not in the dictionary! A chop is a stamp and you use it instead of writing your signature, isn’t it? “My father put his chop on my report card.” The ODE has the meaning “archaic, a trademark; a brand of goods”.  It is somewhat close to my use of the word. The origin points to its usage in old Hong Kong, “early 19th cent.: from Hindi chap ‘stamp, brand’ (see CHAAP)”.  Chaap -- “Indian, an official seal or stamp, used to approve or authenticate a permit or similar document.” (ODE) Hobson-Jobson confirms this meaning, “The word chop is hardly used now among Anglo-Indians in the sense of seal or stamp. But it got a permanent footing in the Pidgeon English of the Chinese ports, and thence has come back to England and India, in the phrase first-chop, i.e. of the first rank or quality. The word chop is adopted in Malay (with the meaning of seal-impression, stamp, to seal or stamp) … and chop has acquired the specific sense of a passport or license. The word has also obtained a variety of applications including that just mentioned in the lingua franca of foreigners in the China seas.”  An English citation of its early use is by Van Braam in his book in which he “applied it to a tablet bearing the Emperor’s name, to which he and his fellow envoys made kowtow on their first landing in China.” There were other expressions involving chop, like a chop of tea (a certain number chests of tea bearing the same brand), chop-house (customs station on the Canton River), a grand chop (a grand port) etc. The word is in the Dictionary of Hong Kong English, where it is stated: “Source languages: Chinese Pidgin English, Indian English. 1. a seal or impression, stamp or brand; 2. trademark, a rank of quality, 3. a permit or official document of some kind made legally binding by the addition of such a chop.”  Such is the journey of an Indian English word in China!

Pupil. A word that rather confused me was pupil.  I heard Fathers and teachers sometimes use pupil sometimes student. I got the vague idea that pupils were in the primary and students in the secondary schools.  And that distinction served me sufficiently well in my school days.  To be more exact, pupil is “a person who is taught by another, especially a schoolchild or student in relation to a teacher”. It came eventually from Latin pupillus (diminutive of pupus ‘boy’) and papilla (diminutive of pupa ‘girl’). In Britain, a trainee barrister is called a pupil. (ODE) He/she would of course be an adult. An expression like ”a pupil of Einstein” would denote an adult too. In the use of the word pupil, it is the teaching-taught relationship that is uppermost, with the one taught usually younger, often boy or girl.  With student, “a person who is studying at a university or other place of higher learning”; also “a school pupil”. (ODE) And student came from study, which came from the Latin verb studere, which is related to studium (painstaking application). (ODE) In the use of the word student, the applying oneself to a subject is the key, e.g. a student of politics, a student nurse.

Sampan, ketchup, wallah-wallah.  I thought these three words were straightforward and on the whole they are. They all come from Cantonese, in a way like se dick from English stick.  舢舨, 茄汁/喼汁,嘩啦嘩. Sampan. “a small boat of a kind used in the Far East, typically with an oar or oars at the stern. Origin early 17th cent., from Chinese san-ban, from san (three) + ban (board). (ODE) The Dictionary of Hong Kong English notes: “From the Cantonese number three sam, and boards, pan, which was probably a reference to the size of the original boat”.  Hobson-Jobson offers an alternative source: “a kind of small boat or skiff. The word appears to be Javanese and Malay.  It must have been adopted on the Indian shores, for it was picked up there at an early date by the Portuguese; and it is now current all through the further East”. But it adds, “The word is often said to be originally Chinese, sampan = ‘three boards’ and this is possible.  It is certainly one of the most ordinary words for a boat in China. Moreover, we learn, on the authority of Mr. E.C. Baker, that there is another kind of boat on the Yangtse which is called wu-pan, ‘five boards’”.

Ketchup. (Also catchup, US also catsup) I wondered for a while whether the English word came from Chinese or the other way round.  In a dictionary on Hong-Kong Cantonese words (港式廣州話詞典,萬里, 1999, p.121) the Chinese word is said to be a phonetic translation of an English word. Not so, “a spicy sauce made chiefly from tomatoes and vinegar, used as a relish. Origin: late 17th cent.: perhaps from Chinese (Cantonese dialect) k’e chap (tomato juice)”. (ODE) But the word “perhaps” should make us pause.  An article about the history of the word* says that it originated with Min Chinese in Southern Fujian since about 300 BC and was at first a preserved fish sauce (鮭汁), (Cantonese “gwai chup” – so喼汁?). Later it spread to Indonesia and Vietnam and came back to China in the 17th and 18th century through the coastal traders, thence to India and then Britain.  The variety of Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce went to America and all over the world.  It was not until the early 19th century that tomatoes made an appearance, and “tomato catsup” (茄汁) became the variety we see today in McDonald’s. The word and its variants are not in Hobson-Jobson. (*Lisa Lim, When China invented ketchup in 300 BC, and how it morphed from preserved fish sauce to sweet tomato gloop” in Post Magazine 21 July 2017. I thank Amy Siu for sending me the article.)    

Wallah-wallah. It is a Hong Kong word, and I once used it in a composition about crossing the harbour during a typhoon: “wallah-wallah”, how exciting! The Dictionary of Hong Kong English says, “Source language: uncertain, probably from Indian English or onomatopoeic for the engine sound… a small boat used as a ferry for casual traffic (archaic)”.  Hobson-Jobson does not carry it, so it is likely not Indian English. The “archaic” mark saddens me for it is such a fun word.  What has replaced it?

Tiffin. Was it Fr Toner who used it first and explained to us that it meant a light lunch?  I knew lunch was eaten in the middle of the day, breakfast in the morning and dinner in the evening.  Actually dinner is the main meal of the day and could be eaten early. I did not quite know how to place tiffin, and never used it.  The ODE says, “dated or Indian, a snack or light meal. Origin: early 19th cent., apparently from tiffing or ‘sipping’, of unknown origin”. Hobson-Jobson is more informative with nine citations from 1807 to 1882: “TIFFIN (The Indian substantive) 1807 – Many persons are in the habit of sitting down to a repast at one o’clock, which is called tiffen, and is in fact an early dinner.” 

Mugwump. If my memory serves me right, it was Fr Doody who introduced that strange word to us, but why and in what context I cannot tell now.  In our football games during recess time, we had our classmate Mak Kwok-Yiu (yes, dear Alex Mak) and when “Mak” and “kwok” were spoken quickly together, they sounded like mugwump and we quickly nicknamed him mugwump. According to the ODE, “N American, a person who remains aloof or independent, especially from party politics. Origin: 19th cent. From Algonquian mugquomp ‘great chief’”. It is one of those words the real meaning of which was never used, but it clings to the memory like a koala to a tree.  I thank Fr Doody and Alex Mak for that word.

Timbuktu.  This I came across several times in school, for it was associated with the threat that we would be sent there, to Timbuktu, for some misdemeanors. Of course we did not know it is “a town in northern Mali… used in reference to a remote or extremely distant place, from here to Timbuktu.” (ODE) It was a terrible but exotic place.                                                                              


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