Kerim Friedman wrote me, “Amitav Ghosh is doing some great posts on the ‘lost languages of the age of sail’ on his blog,” and so it turned out to be. Here’s the first of eleven (he’s up to number 6 as of today); I’ll give a brief sample:

The crew of the William Stewart was by no means exceptional in its heterogeneity. The Tynemouth, a steamship of 1228 tons that sailed from Hong Kong to Australia in 1858, had a crew of 70, of whom thirty-six were white sailors, all English except for four Germans. The others were lascars of various grades, of whom seven were from Bengal. As for the rest they were from places too various to list severally: Daman, Cochin, Gorakhpur, Mungher, Bencoolen (off Sumatra), Massawah (in East Africa) and so on.

On lists like these the term ‘lascar’ has so wide an application that we might well wonder where the word came from and what it meant. The term would appear to be an Anglo-Indian adaptation of the Persian/Urdu lashkar/lashkari, meaning ‘soldier’ or ‘army’.

In passing between languages the word appears to have taken on the connotation of ‘mercenary’ or ‘hired hand’ and was applied in this sense to a certain kind of sailor. The transition seems to have occurred first in Portuguese, in which the words laschar/lasquarim have been in circulation since about 1600 CE: as with many other nautical terms, it was probably through a Lusitanian route that it entered English. The nautical usage of the term is however, distinctively European: in the Indian subcontinent, for example, the word is still generally used to mean ‘army’ or ‘militia’. The extended meaning of ‘sailor’ would appear to have been introduced to the subcontinent by Europeans; when thus used today, it has a touch of both the exotic and the archaic. In sum, the word ‘lascar’ as used on the manifest of the William Stewart, belongs to two kinds of jargon, the nautical and the colonial, and its meaning is specific to those contexts.

If you like this sort of thing, there’s a lot to like at Ghosh’s blog.


  1. To read Ghosh’s trilogy one almost need, among other things, a 19th century naval dictionary. The jargon can be somewhat tiresome at times, but the story manages very well to bring the reader back in the past. He was not completely successful in trying to use Creole expressions for the parts taking place in Mauritius. However the intent was there to use as many languages as possible in situ, and he must be praised for that effort.
    Regarding the word laskar (most of the time written lascar), funnily enough it has come to mean Muslim in Mauritius, a term that is somewhat derogatory nowadays.

  2. Ahoy, Hat. If you google ‘Well-Chosen Words’ and click through to the FT you’ll find an article that might interest you. Although the serious content may all be old hat to you, there are two jokes that were good enough to make me bark.

  3. Here‘s a direct link, which may or may not work for people. (If not, try dearieme’s google approach.) It’s an enjoyable read, but irritatingly superficial; the fact that he writes “Why did the editors of Webster’s Third drop this lexicographic A-bomb (another addition to the dictionary)?” shows that he didn’t actually read the book he’s reviewing (or he would have known that ain’t had in fact been in the second edition, as had most of the things the idiot reviewers complained about back in 1960).

  4. When I grew up, lascars were always assumed to be stokers or perhaps similar low-level engineroom crew, e.g on British merchentmen during WWII and on the P&O liners to Australia.

  5. John Emerson says

    Rascally Lascar.
    Conan Doyle, “The Man with the twisted lip”.

  6. John Emerson says
  7. Paul: and on the P&O liners to Australia
    Do you mean that the word lascar is still in use on Australian boats, or that it was so until recently? Did the word refer to European sailors as well?
    Upon hearing the name of the radical Islamic group Lashkar-e-Taiba, some could not but wonder how a Pakistani organisation came to be known under the name used as a slang word to talk of Muslims in general in an obscure language found on an obscure little island in the Indian Ocean. Some could then wonder whether there was a link between the two. Ultimately there is one since the name Lashkar-e-Taiba appears to mean “literally Army of the Good, translated as Army of the Righteous, or Army of the Pure” (Wikipedia): the fact of being a soldier or belonging to an army is clear in the name of the radical Pakistani group and is contained — though well-hidden by the veil of time — in the colloquial Mauritian expression. But funnily enough a term used in a certain context to talk of sailors became specifically associated with the Muslim religion in two separate occurrences.

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