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The etymology of curry and the mindlessness of the Internet - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

The etymology of curry and the mindlessness of the Internet [Dec. 24th, 2005|10:01 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
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I guess most people know that the word curry is Indian in origin, and Tamil people should know it comes from the word kari. As a native Tamil speaker (and not even a particularly fluent one!), the etymology of kari has always been rather obvious to me, so I was shocked to see wikipedia claim:
The word ''curry'' is an anglicisation of the Tamil word ''kari'' that literally means "sauce laced with combinations of spices" (DeWitt and Gerlach, 1990 : 204).
Shocked that any research is necessary on this topic, and shocked that the researchers got it so absurdly wrong. What's more, googling for tamil curry etymology shows that nobody seems to know the correct derivation. Most search results claim it means sauce, presumably all going back to the DeWitt and Gerlach book.

Oh. My. Farking. God.

Let's begin at the beginning. Karuppu is Tamil for black, which is one of the words derived from the root kar. Another word is kari, which means charcoal, or something that is blackened/burnt/scorched. The word kari usually does not stand alone in Tamil, instead qualifying some ingredient, as in mattu kari (blackened/burnt beef) or katthirikkai kari (blackened/burnt eggplant).

Why would beef or vegetables be burnt? Because of the way they cooked them back in the old days - directly over the fire, on a tripod grill! Thus

Etymology: kari = grilled

The modern way of cooking kari's is, however, to stir-fry them. So:

Usage: kari = stir-fried

Having established the correct meaning, let's try to figure out why there is so much misinformation floating around on the Internet. It is not because no one knows what kari means - they do. They just don't seem to know if kari=charcoal is the origin of kari the food preparation. I think there is a collusion of a number of factors contributing to this:
  • Curry has mutated so much in meaning from kari as to be almost unrecognizable as being derived from it.
  • Most people are not aware how stuff was cooked a century or two ago.
  • The Tamil word kaikari is apparently a corruption of kaikani, "fruits and vegetables", and is thus etymologically unrelated. Since kaikari is such a common word, this greatly confuses things!
  • Most importantly, however, people just copy stuff off of each other on the Internet without any fact checking. Google fixes a lot of problems with the signal/noise ratio of the internet, but unfortunately not this one.

[User Picture]From: ephermata
2005-12-24 01:56 pm (UTC)
Thanks. I'd never known the story behind "curry" before. Have you thought about editing Wikipedia to include this?
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2005-12-24 07:44 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't dream of not doing it - I'm an admin and old timer there :-) I've made a comment on the talk page hoping to get consensus, because I have no reference to cite.
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[User Picture]From: kadambarid
2005-12-30 05:44 pm (UTC)

Sail away...

On a related note, did ya know the origins of the word Catamarans?- it's the anglicized version of Kattu-maram, used by Tamil fishermen.
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From: (Anonymous)
2008-09-25 08:41 am (UTC)


The etymology of the word curry has been needlessly complicated in other attempts to describe its origin. When the Raj first landed in India, it was predictable that they would like to try the local dishes. I suspect that one would have been Korai & in an attempt to pronounce that word the closest the diner could get would be curry. As a result, from Korai being a specific dish, curry became the generic term for spicy Indian dishes in general. One could say, that the origins of the word curry, if this explanation is correct, are English. Just a case of mis-pronounciation.
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-07-17 04:30 pm (UTC)


There are two letters in Tamil to incidate "ri" or "ra" in fact for many alphabets, one is called "kuril" and the other is "nedil".

If you write kari with the "kuril" "ri" it means the color "black".

If you write kari with the "nedil" "ri" it means the "meat" or "spicded dish".

So the etymology is correct.

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From: (Anonymous)
2010-10-01 06:56 pm (UTC)

some more info

Hi it's very interesting what you're writing but do you have any reference about where you got the information? And what about the "curry leaf" found in Kerala?
Thank you very much
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