An AskMeFi post asks the intriguing question:

In the film Black Narcissus, the nuns are referred to directly with a formal address that sounds like “lemony.” What is it? You can hear Joseph say it here three times very clearly, at 5:15 and forward. It is used for all the nuns.

A comment in the ensuing thread says:

Yes, it says “Lemini” in the book, so it’s Rumer Godden’s choice, not Powell’s or Pressburger’s. Rumer Godden spent her childhood in Narayanganj, now-Bangladesh. So even though the setting of the book is the Darjeeling area, and presumably the nuns would have been speaking Bengali or Hindi or Nepali, she may have used an honorific familiar to her from one of the other languages of now-Bangladesh.

Since no further information has turned up there, I thought I’d ask my multilingual readers to weigh in. Anybody know what language this word might be, and what its literal meaning is?


  1. Hat, the song “Kanna Talli” you found is tagged as Telugu. IMDb (movie of same title) and karnatik.com also say it’s Telugu. Here‘s another text from a Telugu site in Latin transliteration that contains lEmini and lEmiye (related?). I don’t know the first thing about Indian languages, so I’ll stop here, but you could try entering it into Google Transliterate Telugu and search for the variants it offers.

  2. aquilluqaaq says

    I think the word might be లేమిని lēmini, ‘poor woman’, from లేమి lēmi, ‘poverty’?

  3. ‘Lemini’ is not to be found on Hobson-Jobson.
    As an Indian, I have never encountered ‘lemini’ or any variations there of in my experience with Hindi, Bengali, Assamese and Telugu, and I would be very surprised if it actually turns out to be from any of these languages.
    In a lot of Indian languages, the Portuguese ‘Padre’ is often used for all Christian priests – for example, पादरी (Paadari) in Hindi.
    I assume there is a similar source for ‘Lemini’, but I am not quite sure. Neither Portuguese (the first to India) nor Italians (the number of Italian nuns in India, say, forty years ago was truly staggering) seem to use anything close to ‘Lemini’ for sister or nun (as per google translate).

  4. Oh I will regret this, but in the ball park?
    मल्हामि mahlāmi
    , v. malāmi.
    मा mā
    Â¹, s. Mother, in guru-mā the wife of a guru. — sāni mā mother’s sister, step-mother. [Sk. mātāˊ f. mother: Pa. mātā, Pk. mādā, māyā; D. tir. mā, Sh. A. B. O. mā, H. P. mã̄, L. G. M. Sgh. mā; — v. māi, māu.]

  5. I think the word might be లేమిని lēmini, ‘poor woman’, from లేమి lēmi, ‘poverty’?
    That’s got to be it. Telugu for the win, and I thank you all!

  6. Telugu for the win
    I am not convinced by this. Telugu is not, I think, a commonly spoken language in either the area where the book is set or where Rumer Godden grew up. (Wikipedia suggests less than a quarter of a percent speak it in current West Bengal, for example). It’s also not Sanskritic in origin so it is not close to Bengali, Nepali etc.
    The introduction of the term in the book also makes no reference to poverty. It seems more like a term of respect:

    “Yes, lady.” Ayah gave him a tap behind. “She isn’t a lady, she’s a Sister. Say ‘Yes, Lemini’.”
    It seems to me more likely to be drawn from a local language. My suggestion is that it is probably related to lamini, a term which seems to be sometimes used in the West Himalayan area either for a female Buddhist teacher or wife or daughter of a lama. There are examples of its use with the first meaning here and here and with the second meaning here.

  7. My links seem to have been stripped out. Here they are not as hyperlinks:
    Lamini as female Buddhist teacher:
    Lamini as female relative of a lama:

  8. You’re absolutely right, that’s much more plausible. I thank you, and I will add the correction to the AskMe thread. (Your links didn’t show up because you omitted the quote marks around the URLs; I’ve Hattically fixed them.)

  9. Where I said West Himalaya, read East Himalaya, by the way – a sudden touch of dysgeographica on my part.

  10. Huh – I just watched the film, and found that this was the top Google result for “black narcissus lemini”. Female lama it is, I guess.

  11. Ian is right. Lemini is the Nepali term for Nun.

  12. I’ve lived in Nepal for 44 years and am fluent in Nepali. I have never heard or seen the word ‘lemini’. One could, theoretically, construct the term “lama-ni” (-ni being the feminine marker in Nepali), meaning female lama. But no one says that. Tibetan nuns are addressed as “Ani” or, more respectfully, “Ani-la”. Nepali equivalents are Guruma or Bhante-ni.

  13. Kevin Olds says

    Sounds like Ian has hit the target….a teacher.
    That was the Nun’s primary effort..to educate
    the people so the author offers a title, Lemini
    Sure the author had his source and Ian has found it.

  14. I’ve lived in Nepal for 44 years and am fluent in Nepali. I have never heard or seen the word ‘lemini’. One could, theoretically, construct the term “lama-ni” (-ni being the feminine marker in Nepali), meaning female lama. But no one says that.

    The princely state in Black Narcissus resembles Sikkim. From Mahendra P. Lama (1994) Sikkim: Society, Polity, Economy, Environment, p. 31–32:

    Bhutia-Lepcha women are also admitted as nuns to a few monasteries in Sikkim, but their number is extremely small and most of whom are quite aged. Some of the nuns, known as “Lamani” are learned in Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist philosophy and preside over the young disciples. But most of them have had no real training and cannot read or write properly. They do not perform religious rituals or ceremonies for private individuals, nor are they given a place inside the main hall at monastic services. Their devotions are confined almost entirely to the turning of prayer wheel and counting the beads. They usually spent few hours in the monastery by turning the prayer wheels.

    I gather the present-day Bhutia and Lepcha languages are deeply influenced by Nepali. Is lamani formed in Bhutia (a Tibetic language) and/or Lepcha (a Tibeto-Burman language but not as closely related to Tibetan) just by appending the Nepali -nī नी>, forming nouns referring to females. to what I assume is a borrowing of Tibetan བླ་མ lama ? (Cf. Hindi -nī नी with the same function, from the common Sanskrit suffix -inī for nouns referring to females; cf. also Sanskrit -ānī, forming feminine nouns (often meaning ‘wife of’) from male names and masculine nouns referring to people; etc.). Or perhaps lamani can just be considered a regular Nepali word in the local Nepali variety, used by the Bhutia and Lepcha who have shifted to Nepali.

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