Idli Day.

I’m a day late with this; our favorite polyglot vegetarian, MMcM, posted about idli yesterday, which was apparently World Idli Day, “a holiday started nine years ago by M. Eniyavan in Chennai, who runs a catering business specializing in idli.” But time means nothing to us here at LH, where Homeric Greek is coin of the realm and Proto-Indo-European is just over the next hill, so never mind. I’ll reproduce a couple of tempting tidbits; from near the beginning:

The same batter can be used to make (the ordinary varieties of) idli, dosa, and uttapam.. This is made from urad dal,(उड़द दाल), that is, dehulled beans (cotyledons) of black gram (Vigna mungo), soaked and ground, then mixed with soaked and ground polished rice. […]

Uttapam is from ūtu ‘blow’ (that is, ‘inflate’) and appam, a sweet rice-flour cake. A Dravidian Etymological Dictionary only lists cognates, all referring to the same dishes, for iṭṭali ‘idli’ and tōcai ‘dosa’. Wiktionary for Tamil தோசை tōcai gives an etymology from தோய் tōy ‘soak; curdle’, that is, ‘ferment’, citing a 1967 article in செந்தமிழ்ச்செல்வி Senthamilchelvi (that does not seem to be anywhere on the site to which it links or among the scanned issues). Devaneya Pavanar’s A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Tamil Language gives a similar derivation: தோய் tōy→ தோயை tōyai → தோசை tōcai. Wikipedia for தோசை tōcai adds a couple that sure look like folk etymologies: தேய் tēy ‘rub’ + செய் cey ‘do’, on account of how dosas are cooked; and ஸ்ஸை ssai, the hissing noise dosas make when cooking, prefixed by தோ < Hindi दो ‘two’ because you hear it twice. This latter is even cited by Pavanar as the perfect example of a “Playful Etymology”, that is, a joke. Pavanar for இட்டளி iṭṭaḷi again lists cognates: ம. இட்டலி Ma. iṭṭali (ഇട്ടലി); க. இட்டலி Ka. iṭṭali (ಇಟಿಟಲಿ); தெ. இட்டென Te. iṭṭeṉa (ఇటిటెణ?). And some relationship with இட்டம் iṭṭam which I am not sure I get. Kamil Zvelebil’s Comparative Dravidian Phonology proposes that, for these idli words, the -ṭṭ- in the Literary Tamil indicates a loanword from Kannada through a Colloquial Tamil -ḍḍ-.

And from near the end:

The OED has a headword for idli, added in 1976 and not revised since, and ones for uthappam and appam added in 2006. It does not have dosa, although that word is used in quotations for uthappam, rice-pancake, chutney, and sambar. […]

I would have thought there would be some casual British mentions of these dishes in the 19th century. Of course, they do appear in dictionaries. […] The OED’s earliest idli quotation is from the 1958 novel The Guide by R. K. Narayan. Idlis are not surprising as a way to recreate the atmosphere of Malgudi. The two 1972 quotations, cited only as New Yorker are, in fact, both from a short story “Naga,” published there and also by Narayan. […]

In 1953, Adlai Stevenson, having lost the Presidential election to Eisenhower, embarked on a world tour of the Middle East and Asia. The June 15, 1953 issue of The New Republic has “Stevenson In India” on the front page with this rather cringeworthy photo and inside a piece titled, “Sir, you are in a Solid Democratic Territory,” starting with a play on the Governor’s first name.

“Idli” is the name South Indians give to the steamed rice-powder cake that forms their favorite breakfast dish. And “Idli” was naturally the name they bestowed on their favorite visitor from America. They greeted Stevenson with garlands and he, in turn, split many a fresh coconut with them in the name of One World.

There are many links in those passages that I have not carried over, and there is, of course, a huge amount of other material; it’s hard to begrudge infrequent posting when the posts can keep you entertained for so long. And let me once again express my exasperation that the OED feels it sufficient to attribute a citation to a periodical (in this case “New Yorker“) rather than bother to credit the guy who actually wrote the words (in this case R. K. Narayan); given their recent disaster of a site revamp, I’m not inclined to cut them any slack.


  1. I am honestly not sure what is going on with this search (“Encyclopaedia of Food History” “Collingham”), found while putting the post together. Is it real? If not, cui bono? Maybe someone here understands.

  2. The less mysterious question, but still something not entirely clear to me, is whether காழியன் kāḻiyaṉ is a homograph or those particular snack vendors traditionally belonged to a specific community.

  3. Stu Clayton says

    One of the first government missions of Idli Stevenson was to prepare a report on Ittali. What man better suited to the task ?

  4. jack morava says

    FWIW idli are delicious

  5. “ஸ்ஸை ssai, the hissing noise”

    I like how curvy everything here is. ssssss

  6. OED just announced some deenshittification “based on user feedback”

  7. Is it real? If not, cui bono?

    It looks like later sources copy some references mangled in The Hindu of 1 Feb 2015

    Plausible actual sources are

    * The Oxford Handbook of Food History (2012)

    * Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors
    (OUP 2006) by Lizzie Collingham

  8. Stu Clayton says

    “based on user feedback”

    Blowback is the clearest kind of feedback. It’s also the easiest to dismiss, as not being “constructive”. To be effective, there must be lots of it.

  9. OED just announced some deenshittification “based on user feedback”

    I hope that some day this will be in the OED as a quotation under deenshittification.

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    If you need an antonym for enshittification, I’m not sure that “de-” is the most cromulent prefix to deploy, because in combination with the already deployed (at the prior stage of morphological growth) “en-” prefix it emulates a “deen-” prefix, which is maybe not technically attested but is not obviously non-cromulent and thus can lead to confusion.

  11. Deënshittification, then. The New Yorker would approve.

  12. Jen in Edinburgh says

    There is apparently something called The Oxford Handbook of Food History, edited by Jeffrey M. Pilcher. But whether it mentions idli and how it got mixed up with the other things I do not know.

    ETA: Sorry, mollymooly already said that! No hits for idli when I search inside it, though. And the original search results are too early to have had their citations invented by ChatGPT.

  13. It took them long enough to fix this. There must have been pushback from people on their user experience people, (thus their antidisenshittificationists).

  14. Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors

    I actually have a paper copy of this book. Not that that absolutely rules anything out. (It’s a good read.)

    too early to have had their citations invented by ChatGPT

    My conclusion as well. But it really does have that feel, doesn’t it?

  15. in combination with the already deployed … “en-” prefix

    Simple “defoo” is the usual opposite of “enfoo”, but it fails to distinguish ab initio fooness from enfooedness. I felt apportionment of blame was a relevant morphological consideration.

  16. David Marjanović says

    Uttapam is from ūtu ‘blow’ (that is, ‘inflate’)

    Interesting – is that the littera rule?

    I like how curvy everything here is.

    If you write a straight line on a palm leaf, you risk slitting it.

  17. A commenter pointed out an alternate etymology from ūṟṟu- ‘pour’, rather than ūttu- ‘swell’. The OED gives the ūttu- derivation, as does the Madras Lexicon, so I stopped looking. But the ūṟṟu- one is in Pavanar and implied by Cre-A’s definition I think. Colloquial tt < Literary ṟṟ is regular; it’s Zvelebil’s

    As for the gemination, the roots are indeed ūṟu and ūtu, but I don’t know what regular processes are in play.

  18. As for the gemination, the roots are indeed ūṟu and ūtu, but I don’t know what regular processes are in play.

    On this process of gemination, see Harold Schiffman (1999) A Reference Grammar Of Spoken Tamil, section 3.7.6 on page 76 here. (Single stops are generally voiced intervocalically, while geminate stops are unvoiced. As for the alternation between h and kk seen in Schiffman’s example ‘become’, see for example the Wikipedia article on Tamil phonology: “Intervocalic /k/ is pronounced as [ɣ~h] by Indian Tamils and [x] in Sri Lanka”.)

  19. section 3.7.6

    Perfect, thanks. The middle two examples are, of course, the four forms in play here. But are the glosses right? Transitive of ‘blow (wind)’ is ‘blow (horn)’. We want ‘inflate’. Or ‘swell’ into ’cause to swell’. ’cause to flow’ should be from ‘flow’. Granted the CT is ஊத்து uuttu for both, which is where the etymological ambiguity comes from.

  20. But are the glosses right?

    Yeah, one of them seems to be screwed up. Unfortunately Schiffman is not a great book, and this may be yet another of its errors and unclear points. Maybe the gloss for ஊத்து ūttu, derived from ஊது ūtu ‘blow’, is garbled and confused with the gloss for ஊற்று ūṟṟu ‘pour’, from ஊறு ūṟu ‘flow’. (Because ஊத்து ūttu related to ūtu ‘to blow’ is only in use as a noun ‘swelling’ or ‘whistle’?) Apologies for introducing that confusion.

    In any case, here is the treatment of the same topic in Thomas Lehmann, A Grammar Of Modern Tamil, around page 51, using different terminology.

  21. Pavanar for இட்டளி iṭṭaḷi again lists cognates: ம. இட்டலி Ma. iṭṭali (ഇട്ടലി); க. இட்டலி Ka. iṭṭali (ಇಟಿಟಲಿ); தெ. இட்டென Te. iṭṭeṉa (ఇటిటెణ?)

    I think a Kannada *ಇಟಿಟಲಿ with ಟಿ would be transliterated *iṭiṭali, and a Telugu *ఇటిటెణ with టి would be *iṭiṭeṇa.

    The script used to write Tamil in modern times has only ட ṭa. There are no separate letters for ṭa and ḍa. This is unlike the Kannada and Telugu scripts: Kannada has ಟ and ಡ and Telugu has ట and డ, ṭa and ḍa respectively. Consequently, Panavar’s spelling of Kannada and Telugu in the Tamil script simply ignores the voicing contrasts in these languages and uses ட for ḍa in representing them.

    So the Kannada forms given in dictionaries are ಇಡ್ಡಲಿ iḍḍali, ಇಡ್ಡಲಿಗೆ iḍḍalige, ಇಡ್ಡಳಿಗೆ iḍḍaḷige, ಇಡ್ಲಿ iḍli, etc., and the Telugu forms are ఇడ్డెన iḍḍena, ఇడ్లీ iḍlī, etc., with .

    (I have only studied Dravidian languages to the minimal extent needed to understand the effects of contact with Dravidian on Indo-Aryan, but to clarify—I hope—the Tamil phonology for LH readers who are unfamiliar with Tamil: In native words in the modern pronunciation of literary Tamil (leaving aside some special developments): (1) word initial stops are voiceless; (2) a single stop is voiced between vowels and after a nasal; (3) a geminate stop is unvoiced (there are no geminate voiced oral stops). Thus within Tamil, no problems arise in spelling with just one symbol ட, as the voicing is predictable from context. Native Tamil words do not begin with a retroflex stop, so (1) does not even apply in the case of the retroflex stop. However, problems arise when trying to represent a voiced geminate ḍḍ in the Tamil script.)

  22. Thanks for the correction. An earlier draft just had the normal cognate forms, but then I thought it didn’t reflect the Tamil well enough and messed it up. But now I see it’s much better — from an editorial point-of-view — to tie that in with Zvelebil’s conclusion that it must be a loanword into Tamil and not the other direction.

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