I recently ran across the Southern term benne (pronounced “Benny”) for ‘sesame,’ and of course wondered about the etymology. Merriam-Webster says it’s “of African origin; akin to Malinke bĕne sesame,” and The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Foodways concurs (“The term itself seems to confirm the African origin of the plant as the word bene means sesame in the language of the Bambara peoples of Mali and among the Wolof of Senegal and Gambia”). But I’m never content until I’ve double- and triple-checked something like that, and I was also curious to see if this specifically U.S. term would be in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, so I looked it up and found it was there, but the etymology said “from Malay bene.” Now, I suppose it’s possible that there is a competing etymology deriving it from Malay, but it seems far more likely that someone on the Concise Oxford staff misread an abbreviation for Malinke as the more familiar Malay. If anyone at Oxford reads this, you might want to revisit this for the next edition.
By the way, power has been restored here at the Hattery; thanks for your patience and good wishes!


  1. rootlesscosmo says

    Did you see it in that New Yorker article about the chef in Charleston SC? From his account of the history, Malinke sounds a whole lot likelier than Malay.

  2. Yes, that’s exactly where I saw it, and I agree about the likelihood.

  3. Randy Hudson says

    The Shorter OED (6th ed.) says “ORIGIN: Mande”, Mande being the family that includes Malinke.

  4. The OED2 says “Mende (Sierra Leone) bene“; the OED3 has not yet reached the word.

  5. Hey, there.
    I just nominated you for The Versatile Blogger Award… Visit Smuggled Words and check it out!

  6. Graham Asher says

    The on-line full OED has:
    Pronunciation: /ˈbɛnɪ/
    Forms: Also bene, beni, benni, benny.

  7. Charles Perry says

    More exactly, Malay beneh or benih means seed. The word for sesame is bijan or lengah.

  8. I’m glad you’ve got your power back. Does that mean that you can mow your lawn now?
    Anyway, as I started to read your post I thought for a moment that you were referring to “Open Sesame!”.

  9. More exactly, Malay beneh or benih means seed.
    So there is a similar Malay word! Then I guess it is a competing etymology, and not just a goof.

  10. “More exactly, Malay beneh or benih means seed.
    So there is a similar Malay word! Then I guess it is a competing etymology, and not just a goof.”
    Competing – are you so sure it’s a separate etymology? It looks like a wanderword to me. The species originates in South Asia and so does that word.

  11. It may be historically the same word, but to say it’s directly from Malay rather than from Mande (which got it, at some remove, from Malay) is a separate etymology.

  12. Sadia Shepard’s book, The Girl From Foreign, mentions the Bene Israel, an Indian Jewish community whose principal occupation was pressing sesame oil. Wonder if there is a connection between their name and their traditional trade?

  13. I believe it’s just a coincidence that the בני ישראל ‘Sons of Israel’ are शनवाऱ्या तेली ‘Saturday oilmen’. They press(ed) coconut and other oils as much as sesame. The Shaivite सोमवाऱ्या तेली didn’t work on Mondays.

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