Continuing my Alexandrian sojourn with D. J. Enright’s Academic Year, set in the late 1940s, I was stopped in the first paragraph of Chapter 4 (page 70 in my Oxford paperback) by the italicized word in the following sentence: “It was the precise kind of weather, Packet grumbled, for which the city had not been intended, neither the malayas of the women, whipping against their sad splashed legs, nor the windows of his flat, which let in draughts at every joint.” It clearly referred to some kind of garment, but there was no entry in either the OED or Webster’s Third International—except, of course, for the similarly spelled name of a former part of what is now Malaysia, from which I assumed it must derive. The similarity made for difficult googling, but I was able to separate out the term I wanted (which occurs, on the internet anyway, mainly in conjunction with belly dancing), which turns out to be more properly spelled milaya and has nothing to do with Southeast Asia: it is the Egyptian form of Arabic mula’a (from the root ملأ ‘to fill’) and means ‘long black cloak or shawl traditionally worn by Egyptian women’ (a longer form is “malaya-leff” from milaya laffmilaya wrapping’). This entry is brought to you by the Languagehat Department of Disambiguation.

While I’m at it, this quote from further down the page puzzled me for different reasons: “A couple at the next table were wrangling desultorily in a debased English. Neither was exactly English, but possibly both belonged to that outcast category which the English abroad were scrupulous to avoid, the British. The woman, little with small malevolent features and intensely black hair and eyes, might have been Maltese…” I had always thought “British” referred to inhabitants of the British Isles, but apparently there was, in the days of the Empire, a wider sense referring to anyone holding a U.K. passport.


  1. I had always thought “British” referred to inhabitants of the British Isles, but apparently there was, in the days of the Empire, a wider sense referring to anyone holding a U.K. passport.

    What other adjective would you have used to describe them? But his whole sentence is muddled and silly.
    Here’s an article on one of the more egregious injustices done to them—they were denied residency rights in the UK in 1968, just as many of them were really starting to need those rights.

  2. Yes, I’m aware of the denial of rights, and obviously the adjective applies to them, but I wouldn’t have thought it could be used all by itself (in opposition to “English”) to mean them and only them (i.e., ‘holders of U.K. passports who are not native-born inhabitants of the British Isles’ or the like). I mean, where does that leave Welshmen?

  3. marie-lucie says

    Now I understand these puzzling words in many English novels (Agatha Christie, for instance): “I am British!” or “We British must stick together”, uttered in Mediterranean countries by characters who do not seem to have any connection with the British Isles. But why did they have British passports? were they all “dragomans”?

  4. There was a theory that the Falkland War was fought because they were British of English descent and thus could not be allowed to fall under Argentine rule, but they could not be repatriated because if they had been, there would be a precedent for the repatriation of a few million British Hong Kong Chinese. A dubious theory, probably, but it shows some of the nuances of Britishness.

  5. The famous case was the Don Pacifico affair.
    As countries became independent, the asymmetry of rights became obvious. Thus Australian citizens, for instance, were automatically British citizens too (the word used then for British citizenship was “subjects”) and so had free entry to Britain, could serve in Parliament etc, while the British had no right to enter Australia. When I lived in Oz, their schoolchildren were being indoctrinated with strange stuff about that era, being told that “subject” implied something like servant or serf. Very rum.

  6. Well, most are civil servants of one sort or another. In India especially there were tens of thousands of them; in Malaysia, hundreds of thousands; if you count Hong Kong residents with British passports (who are, for the most part, also Chinese nationals), there are millions.
    The BBC article above is a pretty good introduction; if you want the nitty-gritty, the Wikipedia article on British nationality law, plus the linked articles, are your friends, tracing the tortuous course whereby the unitary status of “British subject” became the various citizenships of Commonwealth members (including the U.K. itself) plus the left-over categories of people who would otherwise be stateless for one reason or another.

  7. marie-lucie says

    Yes, I forgot that there was a distinction at that time between “British subjects” and “British citizens”. The distinction was pointed out to me many years ago by someone from Guadeloupe: “Being from Guadeloupe, I am a French citizen – but if I was from one of the British West Indies, I would only be a British subject, not a British citizen”. According to Nancy Mitford (about U and non-U usage), “British” was non-U, the U term was “English”, just as in the passage quoted by LH (so the Scots and Welsh were apparently beyond the pale).

  8. I thought “Malaysia” was only coined at independence in 1963, but Hobson-Jobson gives a citation going back to 1610.

  9. Although I am surprised to read of this social distinction, it probably refers to British citizens/subjects whose passports are not stamped “holder has the right of abode in the UK”. Within the UK, it would be more likely to refer to immigrants who have become British (e.g. “British Asians”) and can’t describe themselves as English, Scottish, Welsh etc. as a “true” native would in preference to describing themselves as British (although in recent years even the English seem happy enough with the label “Brit”). Similarly in Belgium, natives say they feel “Flemish” etc. rather than Belgian, and some have told me the only “Belgians” are those who obtained citizenship by naturalization. Although, as the king is designated “roi des Belges”, not “roi de Belgique”, this definition would somewhat limit the number of his subjects!

  10. Irishsubject says

    I had always thought “British” referred to inhabitants of the British Isles.
    In the Republic of Ireland, “British Isles” is considered politically incorrect, in every sense. Implying that the Republic of Ireland is part of the British Isles will be met with a clenching of the jaw and a twitching of the eye. Implying that someone from there is British will be met with a punching of your jaw and a spitting in your eye.

  11. Yes, but Islands of the North Atlantic is such an inconvenient term. We need a new neologism. How about Boronesia, the islands of the north?
    Seriously, though, what is the common term for “those islands” in the Republic of Ireland?

  12. So Enright was actually using an Egyptian word in a phonetic spelling to describe an Egyptian piece of clothing? – how would the average reader (i.e. not LanguageHat) ever know that? Is such usage, (a) praiseworthy because it expands a reader’s horizons and forces them to think about what they’re reading, or (b) just dam annoying?
    The issue of Britishness is complex and constantly changing. Now that the issue of Scottish independence is back on the agenda (the Scottish National Party may win the election there next month – and we don’t have an Abe Lincoln to go to war to stop them), “English” nationalism is rising in response; and consequently there are many people who would describe themselves as English rather than British, believing “Britishness” is neither fish nor fowl. I commend people listen to the folk-rock singer Billy Bragg’s song “Take Down The Union Jack”. Also various surveys find that recent immigrants prefer to identify themselves as British rather than English. Regards, Glyn (Welsh, British, a Londoner in an order that changes daily.)

  13. Andrew Dunbar says

    ‘Do not shoot,’ it shouted. ‘I am a B-b-british object!’, David Malouf, Remembering Babylon
    Which I just happened to read a couple of hours ago. So now that we know the difference between a British Citizen and a British Subject, can anybody tell me what on earth is a British Object?

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