Etymology is “the study of the origins and the history of the form and meaning of the words”, says David Crystal in his 'The Penguin Dictionary of Language'. Sometimes the history of a word is so interesting that it reads like a story. Syed Sulaiman Nadvi (1884-1953) was a scholar who knew several languages and had a penchant for tracing word histories. While describing word histories in a chapter in his book 'Nuqoosh-i-Sulaimani', he says “no matter how much nations embezzle with their history and howsoever invert and revert the events, language and its vocabulary keep on preparing the records of past events for us like an honest and truthful custodian. The scholars of languages can benefit fully from that record when the need be and if we want to know what kind of relations and connections a nation had with the rest of the world the treasury of words preserved in the shape of vocabulary will provide us with a wealth of information”.

In many of his books, Nadvi Sahib deliberates on the history of words whenever he gets a chance to do so. 'Seerat-un-Nabi','Arz-ul-Quran', 'Arab-o-Hind ke talluqaat', 'Arbon ki jahazrani', 'Lughaat-i-jadeed' and some of his other books especially delve into word histories. A few select such histories extracted from Nadvi Sahib's books are:

'Daam' is a common word in our language and it means 'price'. Its origin is Greek. History tells us that Greek had conquered large areas of the world, including a part of Indo-Pak subcontinent, some two thousand years ago. 'Drachma' was a silver coin in ancient Greece. It became 'dirham' in Arabic and 'diram' in Persian, says Nadvi sahib. In Urdu it became 'daam' and it was a nominal coin in Indo-Pak subcontinent whose value varied in different eras ranging from one-twenty fifth of a paisa to one-fortieth of a rupee. 'Damri', a word found in Urdu classics and sayings such as 'chamri jae damri na jae' and 'damri ki burhiya taka sar mundai' is a diminutive form of 'daam'. Interestingly enough, the 'drachma' had been the basic monetary unit in Greece until the introduction of euro in the European Union in 2002.

'Jahaz' means ship or aircraft in Urdu but the origin is strange. According to Nadvi Sahib, 'jahaz' is apparently an Arabic word but the present connotation given to it is purely Persian or sub-continental. Its real meaning is 'baggage, paraphernalia, equipment or goods'. From it, the word 'tajheez' was formed which sailors used to convey the meaning of 'to prepare the baggage for sending by ship or to send the goods by boats or ships' and it was in use in this sense among the mariners of third century Hijra. From this word we have the Urdu word 'jahez', the prerequisites or baggage of a bride sent to her husband's home. Now in Urdu 'tajheez' means to get the funeral ready for burying. With the passage of time, the word was used for sending the goods by land route, too, and ultimately for the carriers that carried the goods.

'Wajah' or 'wajh' means 'reason, means or cause' in Urdu. It's an Arabic word and in Arabic 'wajh' means face or countenance. Face is 'rukh' in Persian and 'rukh' also means aspect or side. From 'rukh' or side, 'wajh' was used in to say 'sabab' because in Arabic 'sabab' means a rope or anything which connects one to another, hence 'sabab' means cause or means. It came in use to say 'reason'. But it does not end here. The plural of sabab is asbaab, or reasons, but in Urdu when asbaab is used as singular it means 'baggage, luggage, goods, paraphernalia'.

Gospel, or what we call in Urdu and Arabic 'injeel', is a Greek word. The origin of 'injeel' is, writes Nadvi Sahib, 'euangelion' (or evangelical) meaning 'good news'. This notion of Nadvi Sahib is verified by both 'Concise Oxford English Dictionary' and 'Essential dictionary of word histories' (compiled by Glynnis Chantrell). The abstract of what they say is that Old English 'gospel' is from 'god' (good) and 'spel' (news), which was a kind of translation from Latin 'evangelium' which in turn was from Greek 'euangelion' meaning 'good news'. Nadvi Sahib says that Christians used to call it 'good news' because in it Jesus gave the good news of God's sovereignty while Muslims call it so because it contains the good news of the arrival of God's last Prophet.

The word 'kebab' seems like Arabic but only the root is. In Arabic, 'kabb' means to turn over, invert, overthrow. When spiced minced meat is turned and roasted over a fire, we call it kebab. Strange as it may seem, in Urdu and Persian poetic metaphor kebab means a chest that is burning with the fire of love or grief. As Mir Taqi Mir has said: Aatish-e-gham mein dil bhuna shayad

Der se boo kabab ki si hai

(perhaps it is the heart that has been roasted in the fire of grief , as it smells like kebab for a while)

But the list is very long and all I can do is to advise you to read Sulaiman Nadvi's books; they are virtual treasures. drraufparekh@yahoo.com

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