Malayalam slang and their origins

Malayalam has always had a history of assimilating loan words from various foreign tongues. This has been true even in some of the common everyday slang words that Malayalees use in day to day conversations. Some of the most interesting ones that caught my eye are below.

Yemandan (യമണ്ടൻ)  
adj.   unusually huge and/or powerful

The name came from, believe it or not, a German warship called SMS Emden. The ship, named after the town of Emden in Germany, played a major role for the German navy during World War I. It operated in the seas around South & South East Asia. During its voyages in the Bay of Bengal and and later in the Arabian sea (close to the coast of Kerala) it sank many European military and merchant ships.

Route of the SMS Emden


One of the stated aims of these actions was to reduce the prestige of the British in the eyes of the native population. The most notorious amongst those efforts was the bombardment of Madras. The ship illuminated the night sky by destroying oil tanks along the Madras port resulting in huge explosions. The SMS Emden soon became the symbol of destruction and fear in the south of India.

The word Yamandan, a corruption of the ship's name, thus came into the local folklore as a superlative for something huge and powerful.

OC (ഓസ്സി/ഓസ്സ്)  
verb. to get something for free at someone's else expense.

During the days of the East India Company there was a provision for sending out official letters and parcels without paying postage. These letters were stamped with On Company Service  abbreviated as OCS. Apparently a lot of the company servants started misusing this facility and started sending personal items with OCS marked. OCS ended up shortened to OC in colloquial lingo and eventually came to be used for anything instead of just letters.

The term is also used in Tamil in the same sense. So it probably came to Malayalam via Tamil as this newspaper article suggests.

KD (കേഡി)  
noun. a thug or trouble maker

This one is very straight forward. KD is the abbreviation for 'Known Depredator', a term used historically in the Indian Penal Code for a petty criminal who conducts his crimes regularly. Most police stations (varies with state) even now are required to keep an updated list of KDs with them.

This word is shared with all South Indian languages and is possibly even more commonly used in Kannada & Tamil.

Knappan (ക്ണാപ്പൻ)  
noun. a good for nothing guy

Now this is very close to heart :).

Sir Arthur Rowland Knapp was a British officer of the Indian Civil Services who served as the collector of the Malabar district of the Madras presidency      [2]    . His inexperience and lack of understanding the nuances of the local culture led to a lot of his administrative reforms being ineffective and unpopular.

Even after being long gone from Malabar, Sir Knapp's name became synonymous with incompetence; eventually being assimilated into Malayalam as Knappan. In reality Sir Knapp had a very eminent career following his reign in Malabar. He later became the secretary of the board of revenue in Madras and also served as a member of the legislative council there.

To be honest, I haven't been able to confirm this story beyond anecdotes in a few blogs here and there. But the fact is that Sir Knapp did indeed serve as collector of Malabar and the story does seem entirely plausible. Beyond that it seems to be very hard to confirm the rest of the story.

Klaver(ക്ലാവര്‍) & Aaddyen(ആഡ്യൻ)  
noun. card suits spades (♣) & hearts (♥)

One of the most popular card games in Kerala is the ultimate timekiller known as 28. This game has its origins in the Netherlands, specifically a group of card games called the Jass family. It possibly arrived in Kerala in the 18th century via the dutch traders of Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka) or through North Indian settlers in South Africa.

I have always wondered why locally the card suits are called something wildly different from their English names. The answer is simple - these cards and games reached Kerala before the British and are variants of their Dutch names - Klaver is dutch for clubs and Harten is dutch for hearts!

Tail Ender

These words are recent entrants into the Malayalam vocabulary. There are a lot more loan words that have come in to the language historically and most of them are now an integral part of the language. This article wouldn't be complete without acknowledging some of them.

Loan Word Origin Word Origin Language
അലമാര armário Portuguese
ആയ aia Portuguese
ചാക്ക്‌ sacco Portuguese
ജനാല janela Portuguese
കസേര cadeira Portuguese
കടലാസ്‌ cartaz Portuguese
മേശ mesa Portuguese
തൂവാല toalha Portuguese
പാര barra Portuguese
പേന pena Portuguese
ലേലം leilão Portuguese
കക്കൂസ്‌ kakhuis Dutch
തപാൽ tapal Dutch
മാലാഖ malaka Syrian
ബാക്കി baqi Arabic
മൈതാനം maidan Arabic
വക്കീൽ wakyl Arabic

The full list is on Wikipedia.

  1. Source: Wikipedia      ↩︎
  2. Source : Conservative Politics in National and Imperial Crisis by Prof: Stuart Ball     . Google Books preview      ↩︎
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