Arvind Narayanan (arvindn) wrote,
Arvind Narayanan

The etymology of curry and the mindlessness of the Internet

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.
Tags: food, rant
  • Post a new comment


    Comments allowed for friends only

    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded