Tombac.

I ran across the Russian word томпак [tompak], looked it up, and discovered it was defined as “tombac.” Just this once, the Oxford dictionary took pity on the ignorant user and added the parenthetical “(copper and zinc alloy),” so I knew what it meant, but of course I wanted to know the derivation. Vasmer told me it was from French tombac and originally from Malay, AHD said “French, from Dutch tombak, from Malay tembaga,” and Wikipedia says the latter is “an Indonesian/Malay word of Javanese origin meaning copper,” but the best (or at any rate most intriguing) etymology I’ve found (via Google Books) is in Robert Blust’s “Linguistics versus Archaeology” in Archaeology and Language III: Artefacts, Languages and Texts, p. 138:

A second term that spread in much the same way as Dempwolff’s *pirak was the Prakrit /tamraka/ ‘copper’, attested as Tagalog /tumbaga/ ‘copper-gold alloy’, Malay /tembaga/ ‘copper’. As noted in Blust (1992) this term appears to have entered the AN world during the early Srīwijaya period. During the later Srīwijaya or early Islamic period it was diffused via Malay trading activities into the Philippines, apparently arriving first in the area of Manila Bay. In time the Manila galleon trade which brought New World metals to the Philippines to trade for southern Chinese silks led to a redefinition of the earlier Tagalog /tumbaga/ ‘copper’ to mean ‘copper-gold alloy’, and the borrowing of a Southern Min word (Tagalog /tansoʔ/) as a new term for copper’.

And Prakrit tamraka is presumably Sanskrit ताम्रक tâmra-ka ‘copper,’
whose etymology I do not know. A well-traveled word!

Comments

  1. The Skt. adjective tāmrá- ‘dark red, copper-coloured’ comes from *tm̥h₁-ró- ‘dark’ (related to Lat. tenebrae, German finster (with interesting complications), Slavic *tьmьnъ ‘dark’ and probably to the name of the Thames). The ‘copper’ word is derived from it.

    Tombak is well known in Polish as a brass alloy used as a cheap imitation of gold, but I had no idea of its etymology. Thanks, Hat!

  2. You’re welcome, and thank you for the further etymology!

  3. marie-lucie says:

    I have run across tumbaga sometimes, in connection with ancient metals, but never tombac.

  4. marie-lucie says:

    Merci LH! You can see that I read more English than French nowadays.

  5. January First-of-May says:

    I know tombac as the name of an alloy used in some Canadian five-cent coins of the 1940s (forgot the exact dates), and know that it comes from tumbaga, an Indonesian? name for a Native (South) American alloy of gold and copper.

    I do not recall ever previously encountering the word tumbaga in any context other than as the origin of tombac, and I often wondered how the triangular heck did a Native American alloy end up with an Indonesian name (and somehow didn’t think of the Manila galleons as the obvious explanation).

  6. marie-lucie says:

    Is the Indonesian alloy just the same as the South American one?

  7. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    Nah, clearly it’s called tombac, ’cause it was used in gilding tombs (gold was too expensive and theft-prone).

    “Tombak is well known in Polish”

    Popular in Polish churches, which people wanted to look “rich” 😉

  8. January First-of-May says:

    Is the Indonesian alloy just the same as the South American one?

    That was what I thought to be the most likely solution (still weird).

  9. Trond Engen says:

    As I read this, Tagalog tumbaga first denoted the copper or copper-zinc alloy traded by Malayans. It was transfered to the South American gold-copper alloy when this took over as prefered decorational metal in the local up-market.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    Trond, so there are two alloys. Were they developed independently or was the Malayan one brought to South America after the Spanish conquest?

  11. Trond Engen says:

    Sorry, I have no independent knowledge. I just meant to explain how i read the qouted paragraph. Dividing it.

    [1. Etymology] the Prakrit /tamraka/ ‘copper’, attested as Tagalog /tumbaga/ ‘copper-gold alloy’, Malay /tembaga/ ‘copper’.

    {2. Diffusion] As noted in Blust (1992) this term appears to have entered the AN world during the early Srīwijaya period. During the later Srīwijaya or early Islamic period it was diffused via Malay trading activities into the Philippines, apparently arriving first in the area of Manila Bay.

    [3. Redefinition] In time the Manila galleon trade which brought New World metals to the Philippines to trade for southern Chinese silks led to a redefinition of the earlier Tagalog /tumbaga/ ‘copper’ to mean ‘copper-gold alloy’, and the borrowing of a Southern Min word (Tagalog /tansoʔ/) as a new term for copper’.

    It’s pretty clear that the word came to the Philippines from Malay. I didn’t mean to say definitely that Malay used the term also for a copper-zinc alloy, but I didn’t want to exclude it. If the word came to Europe by way of Dutch, a borrowing from Javanese is much simpler than through Spanish America. And since Dutch used it for a copper-zinc alloy, then I suspect it’s what the alloy was called where they encountered it.

  12. I had first learned of tumbaga as the alloy that certain LDS apologists were using as an explanation for Smith’s “golden (but not necessarily gold) plates” on which the Book of Mormon was supposedly written, whose weight would otherwise have been difficult to explain.

    (For example, see http://www.shields-research.org/Scriptures/BoM/Tumbaga.htm where The Improvement Era was an official publication of the LDS Church until 1970.)

  13. I wonder if the Semitic root m-r-q “scour, polish” could be back-formed from a borrowed tāmraka, with the ta- interpreted as a derivational prefix.

  14. mrq has an Akkadian reflex meaning ‘to rub’, and the Biblical Hebrew tamrūq ‘ointment’ supports that as the older meaning.

  15. Apparently tombak is a Pashto word as well. If it got the word from a European source, then the word has more or less gone back and forth across all of Eurasia. The only other such Wanderwort that I know of is Hindi śāman, from Sanskrit by way of Central Asia, Siberia and Europe.

  16. The PIE word for ‘wheel’ has lookalikes in Sino-Tibetan and even across the Strait in Penutian.

  17. January First-of-May says:

    I tried to figure out if the “aubergine” family has any such back-and-forth case… looking at Wiktionary, it almost has, in brinjal, an Indian English (but not Hindi) word of Portuguese origin.

    Wiktionary also seems to propose three different original Sanskrit forms in different articles, however (one of those forms being given an inner Sanskrit etymology as a compound, one claimed to be “probably of Dravidian origin”, and one traced back to Proto-Indo-Aryan).

  18. Trond Engen says:

    Could Sanskrit tâmra-ka “copper” be a folk-etymological reinterpretation of a borrowing from Semitic (Akkadian?) rather than the other way around? Who started applying some sort of grease (**tamruk) to polished copper to keep it from tarnishing?.

  19. I tried to figure out if the “aubergine” family has any such back-and-forth case…

    Click if you dare.

  20. marie-lucie says:

    JC: The PIE word for ‘wheel’ has lookalikes in Sino-Tibetan and even across the Strait in Penutian.

    Indeed, and even farther in the Americas and in the Pacific. Not necessarily for “wheel” as such, but for meanings such as ’round, rotate’ and ‘curve(d)’.

  21. January First-of-May says:

    Click if you dare.

    That thread is the only reason I even thought of this example at all.
    (And I just re-read it again, incidentally.)

  22. David Marjanović says:

    German finster (with interesting complications)

    And German düster ~ duster (with other interesting complications)?

  23. The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary says that marāqu means ‘to crush, to grind’. I got the meaning ‘to rub’ from Klein, and I think it is inaccurate.

    In any case, tamrūq is Hebrew, not Akkadian; the closest you get in Akkadian is tamrīqtu ‘mastication’. Semitic, AFAIK, is a minor if not nonexistent source for Sanskrit loanwords, though some borrowings went the other way. Piotr’s IE etymology seems fine to me.

  24. By a strange coincidence, the Mongolian word төмпөн (tömpön) happens to refer to a basin or large bowl (images here).

    It’s derived from the Chinese word 銅盤 / 铜盘 tóngpán meaning ‘copper dish’.

    I assume there is no etymological link between tóng and tâmra-ka….

  25. According to Baxter & Saggart, tóng goes back to Middle Chinese duwng; their Old Chinese reconstruction is *[l]ˤoŋ ‘copper, bronze’ (square brackets express their uncertainty about the identity of the enclosed segment).

  26. m-r-q “rub with ointment” (if that’s what it meant) and another root m-r-ħ “smear” make up one of those strange pairs of near-synonymous roots that differ in one feature. There are quite a few of these in Hebrew and I assume Semitic generally, and I don’t know how they’re accounted for.

  27. marie-lucie says:

    Trond: There are three points here: a) the first two C’s are identical, with a different C3; b) the C3’s have something in common phonetically (both articulated quite far in the vocal tract), and c) the meanings are closely related.

    a) the “trilateral root” may be from a bilateral (proto-)root, with a third C added (I have read about this somewhere about Semitic roots, although I don’t know if it is a standard explanation or not); (this morphological analysis is also applicable in some non-Semitic families with similar minimal pairs);

    b) the phonetic resemblance of the C3’s suggests “consonant gradation”, a feature often linked to some affective semantic difference;

    c) indeed the -q form suggests a neutral or even positive evaluation of the action (anointing, spreading ointment on the body for cosmetic, medical or ritual purposes), the form a negative, pejorative evaluation (applying ointment in a messy way).

  28. m-r-ħ also occurs once (Leviticus 11:20) in the sense of some damage done to a man’s testicles, perhaps ‘crushed’, which would accord with the Akkadian sense.

  29. marie-lucie says:

    Y, I think that most products for applying to the skin are/were made from mineral powders blended with some fat. A mineral powder is made by crushing/crumbling/grinding a natural substance to reduce it to very fine particles in order to make it usable for the purpose (e.g. painting, whether the skin or a wall). So crush could be part of the semantic cluster around the roots in question.

  30. David Marjanović says:

    In PIE, too, some roots with the same or closely related meanings differed in their extra (third) consonant. (Unlike in Semitic, most roots had just two.) A few of these “root extensions” have recently been identified as derivational morphology, except I already forgot where I read that and can’t look for it right now.

    The Proto-Semitic *q must have been an ejective velar, so not particularly similar to a pharyngeal or epiglottal fricative.

  31. marie-lucie says:

    A few of these “root extensions” have recently been identified as derivational morphology,

    Sure. Making different words.

  32. I’ve pointed out before on one of these blogs that all an ignorant person like me has to do is run their eyes down a page of a Hebrew, Arabic, or Egyptian dictionary to notice that roots beginning with the same two consonants tend to have obviously related meanings.

  33. Here’s a review article: Andrzej Zaborski, Biconsonantal roots and triconsonantal root variation in Semitic: solutions and prospects, in Allan S. Kaye, ed., Semitic Studies, 1991, p. 1675. GBooks has some of it online.

  34. That looks interesting — thanks, Y!

  35. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you, Y!

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