So I finally got a copy of the new 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, and in flipping through it I happened on the unfamiliar word chukar. It represents a rather handsome partridge, Alectoris chukar, but what caught my attention were the pronunciation and etymology:
chukar \’chə-kər also chə-‘kär\ [Hindi cakor & Urdu chakor]
My immediate reactions were:
1) The preferred pronunciation sounds exactly like chukker ‘one of the periods of play in a polo match’ and doesn’t go with the etymology. What’s going on?
2) “Hindi cakor & Urdu chakor“? Those are the same word; you’re just using two different language names and transcription systems! What’s going on?
I went back to the 9th and 10th editions of the dictionary and found an interesting sequence:
chukar partridge \chə-‘kär\ [Hindi cakor]
chukar \’chə-kər also chə-‘kär\ [Hindi cakor]
So here’s what I think. In between the 9th (1987) and 10th (1993) editions, the M-W lexicographers discovered that the people who had imported the bird into the western US called it simply “chukar,” not “chukar partridge,” and furthermore pronounced it in a completely anglicized form, not knowing or caring that that made it a homophone of some polo term. So far so good. But then somebody decided that it wasn’t fair to say it was from Hindi, since it was borrowed at a time (two hundred years ago) when there was no clear separation between what we now call “Hindi” and “Urdu,” both of them being cultural variants of the local lingua franca then called “Hindustani.” This makes perfect sense. But then, instead of calling the etymon “Hindi-Urdu cakor” or “Hindustani cakor,” they invented a completely spurious distinction between what look to the untutored eye like two different preforms, apparently because their transcription system for Hindi uses c for the unaspirated \ch\ (presumably using ch for the aspirated consonant), whereas the one for Urdu uses ch for the same phoneme (and presumably chh for the aspirated one). I’m sorry, but this just won’t do. If you get a result like that, it’s time to revisit your theories of transcription, etymology, or entry writing.
Incidentally, the AHD gives only the etymological pronunciation (chuh-KAHR), which I’m guessing is out of date for American use (or why would M-W have changed it?), but a simpler and better etymology: Hindi cakor, from Sanskrit cakorah.
I’ll finish with the charming definition found in Platt’s Dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi and English:
cakor S[anskrit] चकोर ćakor, s.m. The Bartavelle or Greek partridge, Perdix rufa, or Tetrao rufus (fabled to subsist upon moon-beams, and to eat fire at the full moon).