I’m as aware as anyone of the high percentage of words that don’t have known etymologies (boy and dog, for instance), but every once in a while an example strikes me with particular force. Just now it was griot, in the words of the OED “A member of a class of travelling poets, musicians, and entertainers in North and West Africa, whose duties include the recitation of tribal and family histories; an oral folk-historian or village story-teller, a praise-singer.” I was aware that the Mande languages spoken in the area don’t use this word or anything like it (the Bambara word, for example, is jeli), but I was surprised to see the OED’s “uncertain ulterior etym.” Merriam-Webster simply says it’s from French. So I went to the Trésor de la langue française informatisé and found that it went back to 1637 (as guiriot) and that the etymology is, yes, uncertain: “peut-être issu, par l’intermédiaire d’un parler négro-port., du port. criado « domestique ».” Hmm. I don’t much like it, but I guess it’s possible. Why wouldn’t they have adopted a local word for such a characteristic local phenomenon, though?


  1. ‘Griot’ coming from ‘Criado’ sounds plausible. It raises for me the question why do we use the Portuguese-derived word ‘mandarin’ to describe the officials of Imperial China.

  2. Well, that would explain the Billy Taylor album, “Urban Griot” an album I highly recommend, by the way.

  3. Roger Depledge says

    Thomas A. Hale, on his website, says:
    “The modern term griot stems from a 17th century French word, guiriot, whose origin is not clear. There are many theories for the origin of the word, but the one I am working on now traces guiriot back 1,000 years to Spanish (guineo) in the 16th century, Arabic and Berber (agenaou, gnawa) in the 14th century and, finally, to roots in the term for the Ghana empire.”
    Pierre Guiraud in the article on gris-gris in his Dictionnaire des étymologies obscures finds it first attested in the same 1637 text as guiriot. Guiraud often prefers a semantic approach and for gris-gris, “un nom donné par les Européens”, mentions the various Romance versions of the French guérir, to heal, ultimately from Frankish *warjan, to protect.
    In dubious cases I generally go for the explanation least flattering to nationalists, so via Portuguese, but Old Portuguese guerir looks more likely to me than criado as an origin for guiriot.

  4. Perhaps they preferred the word as a style, or status point. Performers have been known to want to distinguish themselves, and do love affectation. Just a thought.

  5. Hale’s explanation opens a new can of worms: Ghana, Guinea, Guyana, which I have seen described as cognate.

  6. Fragano Ledgister wrote:
    It raises for me the question why do we use the Portuguese-derived word ‘mandarin’ to describe the officials of Imperial China.
    Mandarin comes from the Portuguese word for minister, and was used to describe the bureaucrats in imperial China. Before the Mandarin language was declared the national spoken language, it was used primarily in the government, and called 官話 (minister speech). The Portuguese word eventually became used to describe the language as well.

  7. Oops, I just realized that I totally didn’t answer your question. I actually don’t know why English would use a Portuguese word to describe the officials.
    This Wikipedia page also lists an alternate theory, that it came from the word 滿大人 (Mǎn dàrén), meaning Manchu official, but I’ve never seen that cited anywhere else before.

  8. I always worried about griot not looking West African (and the Krahn people of Liberia), but just because most local languages don’t permit initial [gr] doesn’t mean they all don’t.
    Assuming the T is graphic in French because grio looks non-French . . . no, that’s too big an assumption already.
    I suppose it comes from criado via criao then a stress shift to initial to allow unstressed [a] to drop out. Then a hand-waving story about a West African language that has an aspirated/unaspirated distinction like Germanic or Sinitic rather than the voiced/voiceless of Romance, so [k] is perceived as [g].

  9. The first European lingua franca of the Indian Ocean and East Asia was Portuguese. I used to have a book tracing Portuguese vocabulary through various languages from Japan to Madagascar.

  10. Claw, that Wikistub is really bad, so I wouldn’t take the “Man daren” theory (for which there is no reference) seriously, mainly because “mandarin” is attested in the early 16th century, but also because it doesn’t reference a much more common theory that relates the word to Malay mantari (“counsellor of the king”, “minister”, according to most French dictionaries like the TLF).
    It also doesn’t mention that during a part of the Ming, there were two administrative languages, one for the South (based on the Nanjing dialect) and one for the North (based on Beijing dialect and other Northern varieties). At one point you had to be fluent in both to get an official position.

  11. Interesting. The North and South had been divided ~900-~1200, but when the Mongols united them for ~90 years(after a long war) they didn’t use Chinese as an admninistrative language at all. So apparently the Sung and Chin traditions carried on underground, without being in communication with one another, so the total separation was more than 400 years (907-1368 for the Liao areas, which I think included Beijing.)
    I’ve never thought about it, but that reunification was quite an amazing feat. Geographers say that China’s unity is unexpected; in the Middle East, Europe, or South Asia, an area like China would have probably been divided into four major nations and a bunch of little border and buffer states.

  12. There’s also the minor matter, if I’m not mistaken, that Modern Chinese daren is a pinyin transliteration based on Modern English values, with devoiced d and postalveolar r, and the older Wade-Giles tajen is much more comfortable for any rendition into any Romance language.

  13. Charles Perry says

    There’s no Chinese etymology for mandarin. Like mantari, it comes from Sanskrit mantri (oblique stem mantrin), one having a mantra. The Portuguese encountered it in India as a term applied to Brahimns and when they found that China also had a powerful intelligentsia (to get a government job you had to have immersed yourself in Confucian scholarship), they considered it the same sort of phenomenon. Likewise the Portuguese used an Indian word for rice porridge, kanji, for the Chinese rice porridge zhou (juk in Cantonese), and that’s why we know this dish as congee.

  14. Might this word have anything to do with those wonderful small black cherries called griotte?

  15. Roger Depledge says

    Dearest chocolate lady
    la griotte (sour or Morello cherry – Prunus cerasus) from l’agriotte from Old Occitan agriota from Latin acer from PIE ak-.
    So much for the easy stuff. Now, who do you have to know (carnally or otherwise) round here to learn how to do italics?

  16. Just put an i between angle brackets; then at the end put /i between angle brackets. Presto!

  17. Roger Depledge says

    Angle brackets! I’d been trying square ones. Which must explain why I couldn’t use the &lt sign above to mean “from”.
    Thanks, Hat.

  18. Siganus Sutor says

    Couldn’t griot come from the verb crier?
    A friend of mine, living in Mali, complained once in a “live” e-mail about the ceremony going on next door, ceremony during which a griot was performing — and quite loudly it seemed. Loud enough at least to make my friend, a usually mild-mannered person, write “P… de griot !”

  19. fisheyed says

    Likewise the Portuguese used an Indian word for rice porridge, kanji, for the Chinese rice porridge zhou (juk in Cantonese), and that’s why we know this dish as congee.

    The Chinese had been eating congee for centuries already and had several words for it (in various forms of Chinese, but presumably Mandarin had one too), so why did they adopt a foreign word for a dish they already knew?

    Is there a good source to read about the transmission of the word kanji into Chinese?

    (sorry for random upping but the congee question has puzzled me for a decade at least…)

  20. I took the wrong train from London once and found myself in Random Upping.

  21. Bathrobe says

    As far as I know, Chinese doesn’t use either kanji or congee. It’s English that uses the congee, just as it is English that uses Mandarin.

    I know only two Chinese words for congee, 粥 zhōu and 稀饭 xī-fàn (pronunciation given in Mandarin). The second means something like ‘diluted rice’. I’m not sure of the geographical distribution but both are now known and used.

  22. As far as I know, Chinese doesn’t use either kanji or congee. It’s English that uses the congee, just as it is English that uses Mandarin.

    Ah! That makes sense, and I am embarassed it didn’t occur to me. Thank you.

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