I had known that the complicated etymology of the word “ginger” took it back to the Indian subcontinent; it’s from Middle English gingivere, borrowed (like Old English gingifer, which may itself be a source of the Middle English word) from Old French gingivre, which is from Medieval Latin gingiber, from Latin zingiberi, from Greek zingiberis, from a Middle Indic form (my Ayto Dictionary of Word Origins says “Prakrit singabera“) akin to Pali singiveram, which has been said to come from Sanskrit s’rngaveram, a compound of s’rngam ‘horn’ + vera- ‘body’ (supposedly applied to ginger because of the shape of the root). But I learn from the American Heritage Dictionary that the Middle Indic form is “from Dravidian : akin to Tamil iñci, ginger (of southeast Asian origin) + Tamil ver, root.” Now, although I Am Not a Dravidianist, I happen to know that the South Dravidian languages, including Tamil, lost Proto-Dravidian *c- (e.g. il ‘not be’ from *cil-, iy- ‘give’ from *ciy-, aRu ‘six’ from *caRu), so I wonder if the protoform was *cinci-, which would account for the initial s- in the Middle Indic form. In any event, I am pleased to see a Dravidian etymology for an English word. Nancy, this one’s for you!

If this isn’t complicated enough already, the OED adds: “Other forms of this widely diffused word are Arab. zanjabil (already in the Koran); MDu. gengber (from Sp. or Pg.) whence Du. gember; also (with loss of the initial consonant as in Ger. enzian from L. gentina) MHG. ingewer (Ger. ingwer), MLG. engewer, Da. ingefær, Sw. ingefära.” And I myself will add that the Russian word, imbir’, is borrowed from German (perhaps via Polish).


  1. Yes, we have ginger, and catamaran, and mulligatawney soup — do people know what that is? I think they do in England. It’s from meligu = pepper; tani = water. Yay Tamil!

  2. You can buy it in tins in UK supermarkets – a Sunday night supper staple during my childhood. How excellent to discover the name is from Tamil – thanks!

  3. be on the lookout for ginger Altoids!

  4. I can’t contribute much to the Indo-Dravidian discussion but I do know that the Cantonese for it is something like: geong.
    I learnt this word during my wife’s confinement period after the birth of our second child (a one month rest after giving birth is a standard practice in east Asia and very sensible one too). Her mum had flown over especially to cook her the special foods needed to help a new mother recover from the birth. Ginger is very “yang” and is a chief ingredient.
    After a few weeks on a diet of this stuff, I got used hearing the cry “Geong!” which was the exasperated sound of my wife spitting it out onto the side of her plate.

  5. A really weird side note is that the Finnish word for ginger is inkivaari, which looks a lot more like the Tamil word than any of the Indo-European words, or even the proto-Dravidian root, do. How about that?
    I guess it probably came from the German Ingwer. Does Finnish replace G sounds with K sounds in cognates?
    That reminds of another interesting thing: the Estonian word for Bank is Pank, but the words for Bus and Bar are Bus and Baar. I guess Pank was borrowed before the Estonian phoneme inventory loosened enough to allow B’s to appear.

  6. Oh yeah, Xhenxhefil is the Albanian word for ginger. It’s pronounced Jen-je-feel, with the tongue tip pretty far forward on the J sounds (if the tongue tip was far back it would be Gjengjefil).

  7. I started reading “The Ginger Man” this weekend, and noted that there is a Malaysian (IIRC) bar and grill in midtown called The Ginger Man — no idea if the name is Donleavy-influenced or no.

  8. I looked up Tamil iñci in Burrow & Emeneau’s Dravidian Etymological Dictionary (429) and they list other cognates, along the Skt and Pali terms. There’s also a cross-reference to (5535) Tamil vêr ‘root, anything rootlike; foundation’. No mention of Skt vera ‘body’ which is not a very common word according to Monier-Williams. I think s’rngaveram is a folk etymology from the Dravidian.

  9. Ah, well so much for my *c- theory then. The folk etymology idea certainly sounds likely.

  10. Wow — the mother lode! For Chinese, Jeung, Chiang, Jiang, Keong are clearly dialect or spelling variants of one word, as are Sang keong, San geung, Shengjiang, and Shen jiang; I wonder how Gan jinang fits in? Anyway, here‘s the direct link. Many thanks.

  11. Yeah, that site’s a favorite of mine. I pointed the guy who runs it to this discussion, and he gave me this additional link ( ), which is pretty interesting. It does, however, contain some untranslated Icelandic you reading this, Renee?)

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