Home Culture The Etymology of Urdu’s ‘Unmentionables’

The Etymology of Urdu’s ‘Unmentionables’

Despite tracing their origins to ‘respectable’ words, several Urdu and Punjabi words have taken on rather unfortunate connotations

by Khaled Ahmed

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Over the past 20 years, the word ‘qaeda’ has increasingly become synonymous with ‘Al Qaeda,’ the militant group once led by Osama bin Laden, who perpetrated the 9/11 terror attacks that trigged a war on terror who repercussions continue to play out globally. However, ‘qaeda’ is one of many words with a rich history going back centuries that requires understanding of its roots and traditional usage.

Al Qaeda, the terror group, was founded by bin Laden in the late 1980s during the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. One of the sons of a Saudi billionaire, bin Laden reached Peshawar as a mujahideen, launching a jihadi organization that quickly attracted followers due to its financial security. One of these was Ayman al-Zawahiri, a doctor from Egypt, who was desperate for funds. Commonly held belief in the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan is that people even resorted to murdering rivals in a bid to secure bin Laden’s attention.

Prior to 9/11, however, many religious leaders of the border areas maintained they weren’t even aware Al Qaeda existed. Roughly translated as “foundation” in Arabic, this meaning was not familiar in Pakistan, where ‘qaeda’ is often used to refer to a primer used to teach the alphabet to children. The meaning of “foundation” was always there—a primer is a foundation course—but unused in colloquial Urdu, which preferred the Persian “buniyad.”

In Urdu, ‘qaeda’ can also refer to a basic routine, with its plural ‘qawaed’ taking to mean basic rules. Similarly, ‘bay-qaeda’ means that which lacks discipline while ‘ba-qaeda’ refers to the regular. All these words go back to the original meaning: foundation.

In Arabic, meanwhile, qaeda is derived from a literary way of saying “bottom”—the Arabic root traces back to ‘qa’ad,’ meaning “sit down”—while miq’ad is used in a similar manner to the word “bottom” in English. It is funny how a word that begins very innocently as a pleasant way of expressing something undignified becomes smeared with obscene connotations over time. This is exactly what happened to ‘miq’ad’ in Urdu, even though Arabs continue to refer to seats as ‘miq’ad.’

The eleventh month in the Islamic calendar is ‘zi-qa’ad,’ one of the four holy months designated to a suspension of activity by Arabs before the advent of Islam. According to Islamic history, Arab tries refrained from raids during these four months, with ‘zi-qa’ad’ pointing to the decision of the tribes to sit down and give up looting rival caravans. This can also be linked to the English word “bottom,” which traces its origins to the Indo-European root, ‘bhundh,’ meaning base or foundation, and also the root of ‘fund’ in fundamental. In German, ground or floor is called boden, while parliament is called bund.

Over the years, the word for ‘bottom’—similar in sound to the root bhundh—has taken on obscene connotations in Urdu and Punjabi, and is avoided in good company. This is despite Persian giving us ‘bun,’ derived from the same root, and ‘buniyad,’ whose connotations have remained normal. Unfortunately, what is considered ‘decent’ in English (bottom), has become obscene in Punjabi and Urdu (bhundh).

Bad luck has pursued another Punjabi-Urdu euphemism. As referring to ‘bottom’ became difficult, another word was coined for it from ‘knot’—assuming two human legs form a knot at the midriff—becoming ‘gand.’ Today, ‘knot’ in Urdu is translated as ‘gaanth’ while in Punjabi it is ‘gundh.’ The root goes back to Sanskrit, where a ‘knot’ is known as ‘granth,’ dating back to when the earliest books were formed by knotting pages together; a book was thus called ‘granth,’ as evident today from the Sikh holy book being termed the Guru Granth. As such, this could have been a perfect, polite word for an ‘unmentionable’ part of the body, but alas it was not to be.

Finally, ‘toilet,’ from a French root meaning cloth, was once standard usage in the West, but is slowly being replaced with ‘washroom’ or ‘water closet.’ Similarly, Urdu-Punjabi refers to jute cloth as ‘tat,’ with its diminutive ‘tatti.’ This was once a perfect word for a covered place serving as a toilet, but over time, it, too, has become a word avoided in polite company. Instead, “civilized” folk prefer to use the ridiculous ‘bathroom aya’ (bathroom has come), especially among children, who are discouraged from saying ‘tatti ayi.’ The word has become so toxic, it has triggered a change to yet another, entirely unrelated phrase referring to blinds.

The blinds used to ward off the summer heat were once termed ‘khas ki tatti’ (drape made of weeds). Thanks to the unfortunate connotations of ‘tatti,’ it is today more advisable to say ‘khas ki chik.’ That it, among people who still use the chik, which has itself become a rarity in privileged segments of society.

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