I was stopped in my tracks by the second sentence in Chandni Singh’s “Spring Never Came to India This Year” (NYT, May 24, 2022):

I am no stranger to heat. I know the stifling breath of “loo,” the hot and dry summer winds that blow over North India and Pakistan.

I immediately turned to the OED, which has it s.v. loo, n.³ (entry from 1976):

Etymology: Hindi, < Sanskrit ulkā flame.

The name given in Bihar and the Punjab to a hot dust-laden wind.

1888 R. Kipling Phantom ‘Rickshaw 78 The loo, the red-hot wind from the westward, was booming among the tinder-dry trees.
a1936 R. Kipling Something of Myself (1937) iv. 98 A hot wind, like the loo of the Punjab.
1954 O. H. K. Spate India & Pakistan ii. 55 In the NW hot weather depressions generally take the form of violent dust-storms… Such dust-storms are distinct from the loo, a very hot dust-laden wind which may blow for days on end.
1965 E. Ahmad Bihar iv. 45 The hot scorching ‘loo’ winds of the Bihar plains during late April and May have an average velocity of 5–10 miles per hour.
1974 M. Peissel Great Himalayan Passage xi. 175 The Loo is caused by the hot expanding air of the Indian plains rushing into the cool hills.

Looking up Sanskrit ulkā (उल्का) I find it defined as “A fiery phenomenon in the sky, a meteor; A fire-brand, torch; Fire, flame”; Wiktionary says it “is related to Sanskrit वर्चस्- (várcas-, ‘luster’), from a root Proto-Indo-Iranian *waRč-.”

Incidentally, I was surprised to find that this exotic (to me) word is attested earlier than loo, n.⁴ (entry updated September 2016) “A toilet, a lavatory”:

Although not unambiguously attested until the mid 20th cent., the pun in quot. 1895 suggests the word was in use by the late 19th cent.

[1895 Punch 22 June (cartoon caption) We will begin again at ‘Hallelujah’, and please linger longer on the ‘Lu’.
1922 J. Joyce Ulysses ii. xv. [Circe] 531 O yes, mon loup. How much cost? Waterloo. Watercloset.
1936 D. Cooper Let. 22 Feb. in Light of Common Day (1959) 164 We’ve come to this very good hotel—your style, with a pretty Moorish bath..in every room and a lu-lu à côté.]
1940 N. Mitford Pigeon Pie ii. 27 In the night when you want to go to the loo.
2010 Ideal Home May 152/2 Blitz the loo with disinfectant.

The first unambiguous attestation is only from 1940!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Sounds like a sort of evil twin of the Harmattan, the West African dust-laden wind from the Sahara (“evil”, because the Harmattan actually makes things cooler.)

  2. I just noticed “Blitz the loo with disinfectant” can be sung to the tune of “Deck the Halls,” and now I can’t un-hear it.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Gee, thanks, Hat!

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    Lots of potential rhymes for “loo” in the canonical text:

    Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
    Walla Walla, Wash., an’ Kalamazoo!
    Nora’s freezin’ on the trolley,
    Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!

    Don’t we know archaic barrel
    Lullaby Lilla Boy, Louisville Lou?
    Trolley Molly don’t love Harold,
    Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!

  5. Beside Hindustani لو लू (as in Platts and Fallon), also note the Hindustani form lūh لوه ‘hot wind’ in John Shakespear’s 1834 Hindustani dictionary here (along with the variant lūk لوک लूक here, if ‘hot wind’ if not ‘iron’). Duncan Forbes (1866) in his Hindustani dictionary also records the variant lūk لوک लूक ‘hot wind’, here.

    If Old Indic ulkā́ ‘meteor, fire-brand’ is the true etymon (did the OED simply get it from Platts?), the metathesis involved may be paralleled elsewhere in Indo-Aryan—perhaps compare Vedic vr̥kṣá- ‘tree’ (cf. Avestan varəša- ‘tree’) beside Pali and Prakrit rukkha, Hindi rūkh ‘tree’, indicating a metathesized Old Indic *rukṣa-. Turner treats the reflexes of ulkā́ here, but does not include Hindi , lūh, lūk ‘hot wind’ among the reflexes. The form of Hindi lūk ‘torch’ (beside regular ūk) he attributes to a Middle Indo-Aryan Sanskritized hybrid form *ū(l)kiā.

    Also interesting for the etymology of our word is this entry in Turner, here:

    *lūṣā ʻburningʼ. [Cf. arka-lūṣa – m. nom. prop. – √*lūṣ 2]
    S. lūha f. ʻhot wind, attackʼ; L. f. ʻhot windʼ
    Addenda: *lūṣā — : P. lūh ʻburnt, scaldedʼ; H. (← P.?) lūhar f. ʻflame, the summer windʼ → Wpah. poet. lūr-be m.pl. ʻflamesʼ with -be < vātá [‘wind’]

    S is Sindhi, L is Lahnda, P is Panjabi, H is Hindi. But Turner doesn’t mention any Hindustani forms like . Perhaps he considered them loanwords into Hindustani? Could there have been some crossing of the words for ‘hot wind’ and ‘torch’ to yield the Hindustani variant lūk ‘hot wind’?

  6. Fascinating stuff, thanks!

    If Old Indic ulkā́ ‘meteor, fire-brand’ is the true etymon

    I wondered about that too. I hope they revisit the entry and expand the etymology.

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