I’ve recently begun reading Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (I suspect this won’t be the last post to emerge therefrom), and I have a question about the word lengkua in the following passage from page 82:

Tis then Mason and Dixon are most likely to be out rambling among all the Spices armies us’d to kill for, up in the Malay quarter, a protruded tongue of little streets askew to the Dutch grid, reaching to the base of Table Mountain. The abrupt evening descends, the charcoal fires come glowing one by one to life, dotting the hill-side, night slowly fills with cooking aromas,— shrimp paste, tamarinds, coriander and cumin, hot chilies, fish sauces, and fennel and fœnugreek, ginger and lengkua.

By dint of googling (only 9 hits for the word as printed) and my amazing linguistic truffle-hunting skills (I combined the “Malay” in the quoted passage with what appeared to be Malay text in some of the Google results and took out my Malay dictionary), I discovered that the word should be lengkuas, a Malay word for the spice whose Linnean name is Alpinia galanga.

Now, this site has a slew of names for it: siamese ginger, siamese galanga, java galangal, greater galangal, el galangal, el adkham, hang dou kou, stor kalanga, galanga, galanga de l’inde, laos, galgant, kulanjan, naukyo, lenkuas, galanga maior, kha, ka, riêng, großer galgant, herbe indienne, da liang jiang, grand galanga, galanga majeur. But the form galangal seems to be the current English name, used alongside galanga.

So my question is this: is Pynchon’s lengkua a simple mistake or typo for lengkuas, or could it be a legitimate (though rare) alternate form? I have too much respect for Pynchon and his love of variant forms to assume the former, but I don’t see much evidence for the latter. Persons with knowledge of Malay or other relevant subjects are invited to reply at length, but random comments and jokes are, as always, welcome as well.

Incidentally, the OED has the entry form galingale (used by Chaucer in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales: “A Cook they hadde with hem for the nones/ To boille the chiknes with the Marybones/ And poudre Marchant tart and galyngale”) and gives the following impressive variety of forms:

(1 gallengar), 4-5 galyngal(e, 5 ganyngale, 6 gallyngale, galigal, 6-9 galingal, 7 gallingale, galingame, galingall, 6-9 galangal(e, 7 galangall, calangall, 6, 8 galengal, 8 galengale, 4- galingale

But that appears to be a different plant. Still, it seems to be historically the same word; here’s the OED’s etymology:

ad. OF. galingal (garingal), a. Arab. khalanjān or khaulinjān, said to be a. (through Pers.) Chinese Ko-liang-kiang, lit. ‘mild ginger from Ko,’ a prefecture in the province of Canton. The word appears also as med.L. galanga, galinga (F. galangue), MDu. galigaen (Du. galigaan, galgant), MHG. galgan (mod.Ger. galgant).

Oh, and if anyone can direct my attention to an online map of Cape Town in its Dutch days (18th century), I will be most grateful. I’ve found nice history sites but no maps.


  1. The “singularizing” of a seemingly plural foreign word could also be an intentional mistake. It’s been a while since I read M&D (and I never did finish it) so I don’t recall if the narrator is to be considered unreliable or not, or if he often makes mistakes that might be typical or plausible considering the era he is allegedly writing in.

  2. Cool! I’ve had galanga candies we purchased at a large Chinese market near Newark. It’s sold as a sort of shredded coating for tamarind balls,if I remember correctly. The flavor is more astringent than “regular” ginger, sort of like ginger with a slight admixture of lemon, or perhaps quinine. Evidently it may have hallucinogenic properties, as well, but I never ate enough of the candies to find out.
    There’s a delightful, but somewhat sad short chapter in Hugh Johnson’s “Vintage” (a history of wine and winemaking)on “Groot Constantia”, a Cape wine of the 18th and early 19th century, and now legendary as one of the finest wines ever made. It seems that it was the labor of love of the estate owner Hendrik Cloete, and only possible to manufacture with the diligent attentions of plentiful slave labor, so that it stopped being made when the economics turned against it in 1859. Johnson says that he had a glass of the 1830 vintage in 1970. He said that the only other wine it reminded him of is a Malaga from the estate of the Duke of Wellington of about the same vintage, which is about as useful as describing the taste of Spotted Owl as “resembling California Condor”.
    In any event, there weren’t any maps in the chapter, but perhaps some looking around in wine books could turn up a nice reproduction of an old map. They’re almost as much of a cliche of wine books as the photos of the castles and the vinyards.

  3. There’s no way lengkua and lengkuas can be related within Malay: there’s no native morpheme or phonology that could explain it. However, Pynchon’s lengkua resembles a borrowing of the elements liang Ko from a Sinitic language. It doesn’t look native Austronesian, with that [ua]. But I can’t think how to explain the [s] of the actual form. It looks like there are no cognate Austronesian forms in your list, so as a long shot it could be a reborrowing from a Dutch or English pluralization of the original. If Pynchon is being clever, he might know that it was singular at the time of his setting.

  4. Here’s a dictionary with lots of Indian names, and an interesting quotation from Garcia de Orta, a Portuguese doctor who published a book on Indian medicine in Goa in the 1500s.
    “The name in Arabic is calvegiam and you will find it written by all the moors chamligiam or galungem. (… The Arabs, Persians and Hindus give to the rhizomes of both plants the name of kulanjan, from the Chinese kauliangkiang. The correct Malayan name is langkvas.) There are two kinds of what we call galanga, one small with a strong scent, which is brought from China to these parts, and thence to Portugal and other Western countries. This is called lavandou in China. There is another larger which is found in Java and there called lancuaz… In India we call both lancuaz.”
    So scratch my recent reborrowing idea.
    More names:
    Bengali: kulanjan
    Gujarati: kolinjan
    Kannada: rasmi
    Hindi: kulanjan
    Malayalam: chittaratta
    Marathi: baripankijan
    Punjabi: kulanjan
    Sanskrit: kulanja
    Sindhi: kathi
    Tamil: sugandam tittiram
    Telugu: pedadumparashiram
    Urdu: kulanjan
    – from All India Spices Exporters Forum
    From a page on Dehlvi remedies (now cached only):
    Sanskrit: sugandhavacha, kulinjana
    Persian: Khusravedurue kalan
    Arabic: khulanjan
    German: Siam-Ingwer
    French: galanga vrai

  5. Is ‘Crying of Lot 49’ worth reading? Is it fun?

  6. Mark: Yes

  7. A thousand thanks, aput!
    And NickJ: To me, spotted owl has always tasted pretty much like chicken.

  8. I would even give Mark 2 yesses.
    Did you guys know about this project and if so, how’s come nobody let me know last year, when it was available for in-person viewing in NYC steada having to trek to Minneapolis? Zak Smith has illustrated Gravity’s Rainbow, one large drawing per page; they are all online.

  9. BTW — isn’t that the same portion of the book where Dixon invents the anchovy pizza? Or am I misremembering?

  10. If it is galangal Pynchon refers to, then yes, it’s a ginger-type root. Even Pynchon commits lexicographic faux-pas from time to time it would appear.

  11. Hi, I’m a Malaysian Malay and I help my father sell ‘sate’ (sweetened meat/chicken barbeque) with grounded ground nut sweet-spicy sauce. And we call it LENGKUAS. I have a brochure produced by Malaysian Tourism Ministry to promote some common cuisine of Malaysians and in one of the pages, it shows the picture of herbs the Malays use in their cuisines with English names, including lengkuas which was given ‘galangal’ as its English equivalent name. I donno how can I show you those pictures anyways :)… Do you know what lemon grass is? Some things, u just don’t have the English names coz English ppl never use them, otherwise, I’m sure they would have called ‘durian’, ‘thorny’ as that’s the direct meaning of durian, but they still call it durian :). … and hmm ‘rambutan’ (hairy).

  12. Oh forgot another thing. the ‘s’ has nothing to do with singular or plural. In Malay, when something is plural, we just say it twice, eg: monyet (monkey) becomes monyet-monyet (monkeys), orang utan becomes (it means jungle person, btw) becomes orang-orang utan, some say orang utan-orang utan, even though the former is grammatically correct. so u can tell what is plural lengkuas by the rule. HOWEVER, for things like ginger, lengkuas, tumeric, the plural and singular is actually the same. i never heard my mom says, lengkuas-lengkuas (even though it’s not grammatically wrong), because we usually measure it in inches. one inch of lengkuas, two inches of ginger… not one lengkuas, two lengkuas.

  13. Thanks a lot, Nizar! Actually, I’m familiar with lemongrass (I used to eat at Southeast Asian restaurants when I lived in New York), but not with galangal (though I’m sure I ate it in the dishes — I just didn’t know what it was).

  14. 🙂 Sorry about my bad sentence structure. I mentioned the sate and its sauce is because I use lengkuas to make the sauce. Lengkuas IS a ginger-type root, it’s harder than the ginger, brighter color…well.. hard to explain, but if u r so curious abt it, i can post the lengkuas to u… nah… joking! 🙂

  15. A fascinating thread, and thanks to all who’ve contributed. I’ve lived in South Africa, but wasn’t aware of lengkua before now. If anyone’s interested, here’s a web page on the “Malay quarter” of Cape Town.

  16. Thanks, that’s great! (Here‘s the direct link.) Do you know what the “Bo” in “Bo-Kaap” means?
    I haven’t found a map of 17th-century Cape Town (Kaapstad), but here‘s a nice modern one (I presume Bo-Kaap is the tangle of streets running from Buitengracht up Signal Hill), here‘s a bird’s-eye view that gives a good idea of the layout of the city on the landscape (though you can’t read the labels), and here‘s a magnificent aerial photo.

  17. Thanks, lh. “Bo” means “high”, or in this case, “Upper”.

  18. Ah, of course — Dutch boven (Eng. a-bove), right?

  19. Eliza: Do the Malays speak Malay there?

  20. No, Nizar – the vast majority speak Afrikaans with a distinctive accent. But there may well be more recent immigrants from Malaya who speak Malay. I’ve been long gone.

  21. Sorry, lh – missed your query. Yes – “bo” is from Dutch “boven”.

  22. David Ryman says

    Hi, I’m all little late, replying to something from 12 years ago.

    Galangal vs. Galingale

    I have come to the conclusion, although a little tentatively, that the Galingale of Chaucer’s era was not Galangal, and, like you, recognise that it was a different plant… Indeed, a native plant in the UK.

    It, like the “modern” Galangal, had a spicy aromatic rhizome.

    I have a SUSPICION that the English word Galangal, referring to Kha (Thai) was a corruption of the original English plant name because of the similarities.

    In modern times things are further confused because the word galingale pops up as a synonym for Galangal.

    If you have anything more on this, I’d like to hear it.

  23. Interesting, and thanks for reviving this thread!

  24. Wikipedia has a disambiguation page for Galangal and Galingale:

    Galingale may refer to:

    Galangal, one of several plants in the ginger family with aromatic rhizomes used for food and medicines

    Galingale, one of several species of Cyperus sedges with aromatic rhizomes, especially: Cyperus longus

    Surely Chaucer only knew the aromatic sedge roots.

  25. David Marjanović says

    That’s not sure at all. I (barely) know galangal as an old/medieval spice, and not even in an English context.

  26. Dmitry Pruss says

    A question about the ethnic mosaic of the old Cape, I hope it may be the right place to ask it. There is a new preprint quantifying Non-European ancestry in the Afrikaners by DNA, and referring to a number of studies of early church and government records of the Cape colony. Overall, the estimates from the records and the DNA makeup are in decent agreement: on the order of 5% of the Afrikaner ancestry is non-European, of roughly even parts African and Asian in origin, and the Asian part is of roughly similar-magnitude South and East Asian components.


    The composition of the African component is quite distinct from what was predicted by the church records, though. According to the latter, the settlers did not intermarry with the Khoi-San locals at all, with a lone exception. But half of the African DNA is from the Khoi-San Africans. The main source of the history research the cite is Elphick R & Shell R (1989) Intergroup relations: Khoikhoi,settlers, slaves… which doesn’t seem to be available. But the authors mentions numerous marriages with “van de Kaap” brides (presumed to be free and local but of unrecorded ancestry). Is “van de Kaap” a XVII c. euphemism for “daughters of the Khoi-San”?

    Also the new paper compares East Asian DNA sources with the Chinese and the Japanese and concludes that it looks more like Chinese, but weren’t the Malays (rather than Chinese) in the majority of the East Asian slaves in the Cape?

  27. Interesting questions; I hope somebody knows!

  28. Not very surprising.

    I mean, there was certainly a lot of racial mixing going on at the Cape, but pretty much everyone born of such mixed unions got classified as Coloureds, leaving the whites pure as snow.

    But 5% did manage to sneak in, obviously Afrikaner racial purity police wasn’t 100% effective

  29. Come on it has nothing to do with racial police. The admixtures are over 250 years old, and most date to the XVII c., when it was legal to marry non-whites, and classify children of these unions as white. But even in the earlier part of the last century it was still possible to reclassify brides as whites. My neighbors granny was the only white person in her family, assisted by her groom’s congregation in reclassification. Some, but of course not all, descendants on both racial sides of the family continued to stay in touch even through the most toxic years of the Apartheid, even though the exact relationship was a whisper.

    The Coloreds is a self identity group these days. Their ancestry is quite different, and strongly dependent on location. More Asians in the Cape area, but almost entirely Khoisan further away .

  30. pure as snow
    a past admixture is generally not in the way of a group’s concepts of purity or superiority. The feeling of “ethnic purity” depends on present-day homogeneity and same-ness of the recent ancestors. A past admixture, once thoroughly mixed together in the population, leaves a high level of same-ness. On the European side of the Afrikaners too, they used to be rather nonuniform. half-Northern European (Dutch and to a lesser degree German) and half-South European (French Huguenot) but after centuries of thorough mixing, the diverse origins no longer matter in the popular conscience. Conversely, having become a thoroughly and uniquely composed mix, they treat different Northern and Southern Europeans (the British or the Italians) as the “other”.

    For the concept of ancestral superiority (or its softer and acceptable version, ancestral pride) it’s generally enough to imbue *some* of your ancestors with magic or mythic powers … no absolute need to have *all* of the distant ancestors in the same group.

    But to go back to my question. Anyone has access to Elphick & Shell (1989) ?

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