Malabar and Malabarismo.

I happened on a Spanish word I was unfamiliar with, malabarismo, and on looking it up discovered it meant ‘juggling.’ An odd word, I thought, and found a Spanish site that gave the background:

…el nombre en español de estos juegos es mucho más reciente: se remonta al siglo XVI en la India, donde los ingleses conocieron los malabarismos practicados con sorprendente destreza por los nativos de la región de Malabar, en la provincia de Kerala, controlada por la British East India Company. El nombre no se conservó en inglés, lengua en la cual los juegos malabares son llamados juggling games, pero la palabra se formó en portugués, en el habla de los navegantes lusitanos que transitaban por el océano Índico y más tarde fue acogida por el castellano.

The Spanish name […] is much more recent: it goes back to the 16th century in India, where the English became acquainted with the juggling practiced with surprising skill by the people of the region of Malabar, in the province of Kerala, controlled by the British East India Company. The name was not preserved in English […]; it was created in Portuguese, in the speech of the Lusitanian sailors who crossed the Indian Ocean, and later was picked up by Spanish.

So then I wondered about Malabar itself, and found an OED entry (updated June 2000):

Etymology: < Portuguese Malabar the Malabar Coast or one of its inhabitants (1512), the Malayalam language (1551) < Arabic Malaybār the Malabar Coast or its inhabitants (13th cent. or earlier; also in forms Manībār (12th cent.), Mulaybār (14th cent.)) < a Dravidian first element (compare Tamil malai, Malayalam mala: see Malayalam n. and adj.) + Persian bār region, country.
The application to the Tamil people and language is after similar use in Portuguese, in which it probably arose from the fact that the Malabar were encountered by the Portuguese earlier than the Tamils, and the name of the language of the one people was hence used also for the closely related language of the other. (For further discussion see H. Yule and A. C. Burnell Hobson-Jobson (1886) at cited word.)

The very full and satisfying Hobson-Jobson entry is here.


  1. Is the similarity with “Malay” coincidental, I wonder? And Malé, capital and namesake of the Maldives?

  2. Malabarismo (juggling) and malabarisma (juggler) are in common use today among spanish speaking jugglers in south and central America. I suspect the words came through Portuguese from the 15th century Vasco de Gama days, before the British East India Company.

  3. There’s a Mt Malabar in western Java, one of the line of volcanoes south of Bandung. I’ve seen a claim that the name derives from the Indian Malabar – which can’t be totally excluded because there was a trade in slaves from southern India to Sumatra and Java before and for two centuries after Europeans arrived in the Indian Ocean. But the claim seems pretty implausible: foreign slaves weren’t traded with what was at the time a thinly inhabited interior, and the Hobson-Jobson entry offers evidence that Malayalam and Tamil speakers didn’t themselves use Malabar. The longest of long bows would be an Arab trader venturing into the interior. But it’s even more implausible that the local Sundanese would have replaced their own name for the volcano with the whim of a visitor.

    The name is recorded in the Old Sundanese poem Bujangga Manik, part of which is a peripatetic survey of Java’s geography, listing a Mount Malabar among the peaks of western Java. The poem may date from the late sixteenth century, certainly from well before the time outsiders first penetrated into the interior. (It’s preserved on a palm leaf manuscript given to the Bodleian Library in 1627.)

    The Sundanese-English dictionary of Jonathan Rigg (1862) surmises that Malabar may come from “the word Labar as occurring in Lébér-labar or Labar-lébér, running over in all directions, on all sides as a Volcano might discharge its ashes or lava, first on one side, and then on the other, all round the crater. Ma would then be the usual Sunda[nese] constructive particle, giving the word a verbal form.” This looks more attractive as an explanation, but the use of an active verb form as a toponym is to my knowledge almost unknown in Java, in both the Sundanese- and Javanese-speaking zones. It’s also puzzling that it would be applied to that one mountain in particular, in a region where most of the volcanoes periodically discharge ashes or lava “running over in all directions”.

  4. Lameen: The OED says,

    The name Maldive (attested from the late 17th cent.) is < Portuguese Maldiva (1503) (perhaps partly via French Maldive (c1555)) < Sinhala Maldiva, probably < Sanskrit malaya-dvīpa, understood as ‘islands of Malabar’ (originally designating the Laccadives or Laccadive-Maldive archipelago) < Tamil malai or Malayalam mala mountain(s) (see Malayalam n. and adj.) + Sanskrit dvīpa island.

    Funny that such a flat country should derive its name from ‘mountain’.

    All this still doesn’t explain Malé.

  5. Pospelov’s dictionary of place names says it’s from the same base as Maldive.

  6. There’s a very romantically-named coffee process called “monsooned malabar”, which involves exposing the beans to the sea air to simulate how they used to taste after arriving in Europe after a sailing voyage. The one time I tried it, it turns out the exposure makes the beans taste milder than usual, which is not as romantic as I’d hoped.

    Here’s a sonnet I wrote about it, for what it’s worth:

    monsooned malabar

    the ships (which only risked the trip at most
    propitious times) would often take a year
    or more along the trade routes, then appear
    in lisbon or in london, limping ghosts
    weighed down with wares. the beans they meant to roast
    would mellow underway, grow mild and clear,
    bleached by the salt-damp as they’d slowly steer
    from godowns on the coromandel coast.

    so many pickled, smoked, fermented, dried,
    or salt goods were developed to secure
    from spoil; their tastes mere storage accidents –

    now coffee-sellers simulate the ride
    through briny tides these beans would once endure,
    to mimic sea-changes the sailing lent.

  7. marie-lucie says


    This word brought back old memories: it is one of a few that my father (born Paris 1914) and no one else used, likely slang from his student days, as in X, c’était un malabar (meaning X was a big, heavyset guy, the kind one might think could be a heavyweight boxer). I looked up the word in the TLFI, where it is listed but with few examples, so probably not very common. Slang, perhaps, but not particularly student slang.

    Since the common meaning (eg as shown in “hobson-jobson” involves men working on or with ships in the general area of India’s coasts, I can see the likely semantic shift from “strong man from an Indian coastal area working as stevedore or sailor on European ships during the Spice trade” to “such a man developing skills as entertainer (juggling, wrestling, or such) in port cities while long-distance ships had to be idle” to the less common “professional entertainer using some specialized physical skills (esp. juggling)”.

    As for the many Malabars and similar names, located along a coast populated by people speaking a variety of languages, the name might have been used by (usually mixed) ship crews to refer to types of places along the coast, often just seen from a distance on the sea, rather than a number of places with the same basic name in different languages. Could this be a possiblity?

  8. Lars Mathiesen says

    Malabarisk was used in Danish for the Tamil language spoken in Malabar, close to the Danish possession of Tranquebar, and by extension (from “unintelligible language”) for any strange sounding thought (even some of Kant’s) or strange looking person.

  9. John Emerson says

    An Iranian told me that in Iran the response to strange sounding ideas is “Where did you get that from, Balkh?”. Balkh is now in Afghanistan and has been greatly reduced, but historically and culturally is was a major city and the center of Bactria.

    Wiki: “At a very early date, it was the rival of Ecbatana, Nineveh and Babylon. “

  10. Raveen Nathan says

    Another hypothesis to remember is when the Portuguese showed up in Malabar in the 1500’s, most Malaylees and Tamils were one people even though the elite Malabaris may have reserved the highly Sanskritized Malayalam language to themselves. That is the Portuguese were not mistaken in identifying Tamils as Malabaris as they encountered them in Malabar first. St.Xavier who went to South India to convert locals, observed what the local Malabari fishermen were conversing in Malabar and recorded it. Their language looks very close to Tamil than Malayalam.

  11. Very interesting, thanks for that!

Speak Your Mind