I was reading and enjoying David Sedaris’s latest piece for the New Yorker (archived), about a trip to Kenya, when I got to this passage:

He was giving us a tour, and was leading us from the hydroponic vegetable garden—the “shamba of goodness,” it was called—to the recreation area. I looked at the man whose job it was to guard the pool we were passing. “What do hippos smell like?” I asked.

Steven thought for a moment. “Cows.”

There were nine tents in all. “Are there many other guests at the moment?” I’d asked the woman who checked us in.

“We have no guests here,” she told me, smiling so broadly I could see her gums. “Only family.”

Oh, no, I thought, for doesn’t a person go on safari to escape that kind of talk? Ditto “shamba of goodness.”

I was, of course, amused, but also frustrated: what was shamba? The internet being at hand, I promptly visited Wiktionary, where I found that it means “garden, farm (any land that is cultivated), field, plantation.” But no etymology was given, and the OED (entry revised 2022) said “< Swahili shamba (plural mashamba), of uncertain origin.” Just for completeness, and not expecting anything useful from such an ancient source, I turned to Johnson’s Standard Swahili-English Dictionary (a 1986 reprint of the 1939 first edition, itself based on Madan’s 1903 dictionary) and found this delightfully chatty entry:

Shamba,* n. ma- (1) a plantation, an estate, farm, garden, plot of cultivated ground; (2) the country as opposed to the town. Enda shamba, go into the country. Toka shamba, come from the country. Mtu wa shamba, a rustic, peasant. Kimashamba, also kishamba, n. and adv. anything belonging to the plantation or country; countrified, rustic, boorish, rude (unpolished) of language, and manners, &c. (Cf. kiunga, and konde, and mgunda, which are the Bantu words in use. French champ—it is very probable that cloves came to Zanzibar from Mauritius where the French introduced them in 1770, as they were introduced to Zanzibar about 25 years later and French ships passed frequently on their way from India. It is also probable that the Arabs learnt, directly or indirectly, how to cultivate cloves from the French. This cultivation would no doubt involve more orderly and extensive agriculture than had been done before, and the French word would be adopted for the plantations. (Cf. French girofle for clove, which is undoubtedly connected with the Ar. karafuu, also divai, which is from the French du vin.)

The French etymologies sound loony to me (well, I guess the divai one less so), but they doubtless seemed plausible back in the days of pith helmets and gin on the verandah.


  1. One thing I noticed in the Sedaris article:
    “I think it’s when you make a taco with, like, blue cheese on it,” he writes. “Blue cheese”?? While previously he writes “suede” with an accent grave: “suède”?? Ah, mon Dieu!

  2. ktschwarz says

    Sedaris may not have written “suède” himself; there are several examples of unaccented “suede” in his books. Perhaps some archaically-minded magazine copyeditor put the accent on. This is another one where New Yorker house style is “whatever the copyeditor feels like at the moment”; Google finds plenty of examples there of both “suede” and “suède”. American dictionaries even now still give the accented version as an alternate spelling, although I don’t recall ever noticing it in English before.

    1969 New Yorker review by Ellen Willis of Elvis in Vegas: “I hoped Elvis would be crude and surly and stomp all over the veneer with his blue suède shoes … He started with ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’” Perhaps they were carefully quoting the song title according to its ASCAP registry—or perhaps it was random.

  3. cuchuflete says

    It pains me no small amount to report that shambolic is entirely devoid of any relationship with shamba.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve seen the samba < champ proposal before, though I can’t recall where.
    I agree that it looks highly improbable. The Johnson article pretty much gives the game away with its “it is very probable” and “no doubt” …

    Quite apart from the general silliness, the “rustic, boor” sense does not suggest an origin from “cultivated field” specifically at all. The correspondingly used terms in Western Oti-Volta are not pɔɔg “cultivated field” but mɔɔg “grass, bush.” Farmers are just not the prototypical boorish rustics in Bantu cultures. Indeed, the great expansion of Narrow Bantu was apparently driven by their relatively sophisticated agricultural techniques (the ironworking thing probably helped latterly, but doesn’t seem to have begun early enough to have been the major factor that gave the Bantu their edge over the various peoples they displaced or assimilated.)

    The divai one looks a lot more sensible, though. There are similar forms from du vin in several West African languages.

  5. It pains me no small amount to report that shambolic is entirely devoid of any relationship with shamba.

    And neither of them has any relationship with Shambhala. L’arbitraire du signe strikes again!

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Mind you, I suppose that the Swahili-in-the-narrow-sense, citified traders priding themselves on their Islam and their Arab lineages, may indeed have regarded farmers as uncivilised pagani, unBantu though that attitude may be. It is difficult to explain the “peasant, rustic” sense that Johnson cites for mtu wa shamba otherwise. Not that it makes the champ story any more plausible …

  7. “…and the French word would be adopted for the plantations. (Cf. French girofle for clove, which is undoubtedly connected with the Ar. karafuu, also divai, which is from the French du vin.).”

    1. karafuu is Swahili, it is qaranful in Arabic (a word I heard very early, when I didn’t know any Arabic in the Moroccan form qrunful. I thought it stands out and even does not sound as Arabic, so I asked my Moroccan friend what it means, and was proud to see that it’s a loan:))

    2. girofle is obviously connected to it, but what does it tell us about French-to Swahili borrowings?

  8. “karafuu is Swahili” – unl;ess they speak Arabic wiht such an accent, of course. (but speaking of this, Indian and Tagalog forms here قرنفل do look as if Dhivehi and Swahili forms are borrowed from Indic languages. Unless of course, ul > uu rather than, say, >uli – cf. rasuul > rasuli is expected.)

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    Karafuu is obviously from Arabic (in which the word itself is a loan, presumably from a Romance language.*)

    The loss of /l/ in that context is regular in Swahili.

    None of this has any bearing on the fanciful shamba etymology, of course, and doesn’t make it any more plausible.

    * Or maybe not even Romance:

  10. Qaranful is attested in Arabic before Romance languages can be said to have existed, even. A borrowing from Greek might be suggested by the l, but direct from India seems more probable given the geography of the clove trade.

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Wiktionary suggests (very plausibly) that the Greek compound καρυόφυλλον itself, transparent though it is, is actually a sort of folk etymology of a borrowed word.

    French, at any rate, plainly has nothing to do with it.

  12. DE, yes, but it is called “Arabic” and not “from Arabic”.

    The loss of /l/ in that context is regular in Swahili” do you remember any examples? And do they also have double -uu? I just tried to look up various Arabic loans. Mostly (when the consonant is not ʕ as in nafuu “advantage, benefit, preference, gain”) what I’m seeing is just addition of extra vowels. But words I look up can be literary borrowings while karafuu is not (also I haven’t come up with an -ul as opposed to -uul source word).

  13. Al-Khalil Ibn Ahmad’s 8th c. definition:

    الــقَرَنْفُلُ: حمل شجرة هندية. وطيب مُقَرْفل: فيه قَرَنْفُل، ويجوز للشاعر أن يقول: قَرَنْفُول، قال:

    خود أناة كالمهاة عطبول … كأن في أنيابها القَرَنْفُولْ

    al-qaranful: the fruit of an Indian tree. Incense with cloves in it is muqarfal. Poetic license permits qaranfūl; the poet has said:

    Beautiful chaste maidens like oryxes, long-necked,
    As if in their teeth there were qaranfūl.

  14. But looking at the Indian forms, unless I’m missing something, I actually do think the Arabic word must be a borrowing from Greek, geography notwithstanding; can’t see why it would have gained the l otherwise.

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    but it is called “Arabic” and not “from Arabic”

    Yes, I was agreeing with you, though I didn’t make that very clear.

    For Swahili *ulu -> uu cf e.g. mguu “leg’ from *mugulu.

    The only really notable thing about karafuu is final u rather than i, but like Hausa, Swahili has several different strata of Arabic loans (notably, Omani versus learned Classical, but also from different time periods.)

  16. But why -n- then?

    (also Swahili words recemble both Arabic and Indian forms, so unless for one of these two possible sources the sound change is predictable and for the other it is not, it could be influenced by both. Perhaps same can be true for Arabic as well)

    (PS: addressed to Lameens comment above)

  17. “I think it’s when you make a taco with, like, blue cheese on it,” he writes. “Blue cheese”??

    What’s the issue with blue cheese?

    Also Sedaris is probably on target. According to a Mexican cooking website « Uno de los quesos menos conocidos en México, es el de la variedad de queso llamado “queso azul”« 

  18. DE, thanks!
    Yes, I understand about different strata and thank you for the example.

    from *mugulu.” – I looked it up, I see that in some dialects it is muguru, so maybe a natural question is how stable is Arabic borrowed /r/ compared to Arabic borrowed /l/, but presumably I need to be a specialist to answer it:(

  19. Swahili and Sabaki, pages
    315: “Persian … tambul ‘betel nut’ versus Swahili …. tambuu (earlier *tambulu)

    and 317: Possible loans into Proto-Swahili: …
    karafuu ‘clove’: xarafuuri (Mw); karafuu (Com); Ar qaranful, but cloves were a late 18th/early 19th century introduction)

  20. What’s the issue with blue cheese?

    Dave J. seems to have been under the same misapprehension as this Redditor:

    When I was little I had learned that the proper spelling was “bleu cheese” and that “blue” was incorrect. Even the packets of salad dressing in my school cafeteria spelled it “bleu” (in the US). I was surprised to learn that “blue” is now the proper spelling and always has been. In fact, the term “blue cheese” predates the term “bleu cheese” by over 100 years!

  21. When I came to the US, ‘bleu’ cheese was one of those things that puzzled me greatly, especially since it was pronounced a l’anglais. I’m glad to see that sanity has been restored, although I remain puzzled how ‘bleu’ came about in the first place.

  22. I always wondered about that too.

  23. Likely from names “bleu de [….]”, but the spelling is wonderfully perverse.

  24. Rodger C says

    I think that “bleu cheese” is a government-mandated spelling for “blue-cheese-like substance.”

  25. On the other hand, possibly the author meant cheese made from cow milk.
    Then he could object to Dave that such bleu*-like substances should not properly be called “bleus”, and oversnob him:)

    * as a noun

  26. The FDA does not use bleu anywhere that I can find outside of quoting the names of brands in various actions.

    It isn’t hard to find late 20th century sources that claim bleu means it’s imported, but I imagine that’s invented after the fact.

  27. Re “bleu cheese”:
    I always thought this was the normal spelling, until I checked Wiktionary just now and was informed that this spelling is used only in North America.
    You learn something new every day!

  28. David Marjanović says

    I’m wondering if it started as a typo.

  29. The OED, while saying only, “part-translation of French fromage bleu,” gives quotations that suggest something like what drasvi proposed, where it starts with specific bleu d’ cheeses early in the century. And then by the late ’50s, Ogden Nash on How to Tell a Kitchen from a Cuisine, notes the odd halfway, and so rhyming fromage blue with “don’t you.” (And beans with magazines and definite with chef in it and more typically silly ones.)

    There is a lot of bad metadata in the usual places, but it does seem to be spelled bleu cheese as early as a 1912 Food Inspector’s Encyclopaedia, published, interestingly enough, in London.

  30. The earliest (without corrupt date metadata) on seems to be a 1932 Wegmans ad featuring “imported fromage / bleu cheese.”

  31. bleu cheese” makes certain sense within English grammar if you read le bleu/les bleus as a noun.
    I’m not suggesting that that is what people who wrote it first actually meant.

    But I think “bleu de…” is more provocative than “… bleu”. And here bleu is a noun. I don’t know, whether its nominal interpretation could somehow support the new spelling/wordplay/or what it is. English speakers can tell, I don’t have the intution for such things.

  32. (A random araboid note) Youtube keeps offering me songs by Emel Mathlouthi, I keep ignoring them, but this time I clicked and listened to her hit of 2020. It is good, so I eventually listened to the revolutionary song that made her famous, كلمتي حرة. And strangely (because both words and music look … i don’t know, like some hymn) it affected me powerfully.

  33. “bleu cheese” makes certain sense within English grammar if you read le bleu/les bleus as a noun.

    I think that’s very unlikely. Very few English speakers, even if they’ve studied French, are aware that bleu can be a noun — they equate it to English blue and think of it purely as an adjective. No, I’m sure it was simply a matter of “That’s how the French spell it, so it’s classy.”

  34. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Or, as someone said above, it’s generalized from brand names like Bleu de Bresse (which was introduced in 1951, so it must have been some other Bleu. Those Frenchies being damn clever, they wouldn’t have used the word if it didn’t have antecedents).

    blåskimmelost, FWIW. Sw blåmögelost. Both words for ‘mold’ are the same as the stuff that grows in damp walls and makes you sick, but to my ears mögel is more so. Fungi with larger fruiting bodies, such as dry rot, are not called skimmel, but just svamp. (And mold on food that isn’t good to eat is mug in Danish. The distinction is not made in Swedish, I think).

    And for some reason, a “gray” horse (with progressive depigmentation of the coat) is also called en skimmel (count noun). Well, somebody must have thought it looked like the spread of white mold, but the association is not “front-of-mind” these days.

  35. German has the same Schimmel “mold”, Schimmel “white/gray horse” parallel. But in modern German “Schimmel” (mold) is not necessarily white, it can even be black. I suppose in the earlier Germanic languages “skimmel” was restricted to white/gray mold?

    I don’t think the “skimmel”/”mug” distinction exists in German either, all “Schimmel” to me.

  36. @LH, but is not it a noun in names of cheeses “bleu de …”? I mean, you’re a lover of French cheeses and you want to buy “le bleu de Gex Haut-Jura” and you are using bleu as an adjective? Right between the article and de?

    Anyway, but I do not suggest that they seriously meant that.

  37. @LH, but is not it a noun in names of cheeses “bleu de …”?

    Sure, I’m just saying most English speakers aren’t aware of that.

  38. Yes, but when you say “Bleu de Gex”, you process it as a noun, no matter how you explain it to yourself.

    Also the first people who began to write “bleu cheese” could actually be more knowlegeable than just people who have spotted “bleu” on the pack and associated it with the colour,

  39. Stu Clayton says

    Here’s a genetic etymology of Schimmel. It refers to a horse born with any color of hide, the color becoming greyish-white over time, so it comes to look moldy:

    Die moderne Pferdezucht verwendet den Ausdruck Schimmel im engeren Sinne. Ein echter Schimmel ist ein Pferd, das mit beliebiger Fellfarbe geboren wird und aufgrund des Grey-Gens im Lauf der Jahre weiß wird (ausschimmelt).[1] Jeder Träger des Grey-Gens ist ein Schimmel und kann das Gen vererben.

  40. Rodger C says

    From a fiction of mine, which I quoted at some point in some connection. It takes place at the Greco-Bactrian restaurant, and the anecdote was told me long ago in grad school, in third person, as factual.

    Their meals arrived. … Aidan’s entrée was topped with blue cheese—not (as he’d expected) du fromage bleu, but cheese that was literally the color of the sky. He noticed Bianca looking at it. “Would you like some of this?”
    “No, I … I was just thinking about …” She stopped.
    “Well. … My first year at LAC—I was a day student there, because Mom still needed me at home for the boys then, but my friend—Olive Garten. She was a dorm student, and one day she got a care package from home, and it included this piece of whitish-yellow cheese, like they make where she came from. And she came back from class the next day, and she was feeling like some of that cheese, and she went to find it, and it was gone, and she said to her roommate, ‘You didn’t eat all my cheese, did you?’
    “‘No,’ she said, ‘I threw it out.’
    “‘What!’ she said. And her roommate … ‘Olive, it had gone bad. It wasn’t orange any more.’”

  41. Rodger C I once disposed of expensive French cheese bought in a cheap shop (Auchan) because I was not able to determine if is supposed to smell ammonia or not.
    Perhaps local gourmands can clarify?

    Auchan is the first shop in Moscow (except maybe some expensive places that I’d rather avoid) that began selling unusual French cheeses, I was curious, and when I was heading to the girl I was courting back then Auchan was on the way, so I bought several of them. But see above about ammonia.
    Otherwise, in another story in the French dormitory everyone just questly suffered when girls in one of the rooms were having their cheese.

  42. Also the first people who began to write “bleu cheese” could actually be more knowlegeable than just people who have spotted “bleu” on the pack and associated it with the colour

    Sure, but I’m not talking about the first people, I’m talking about the far greater number of people who thought “bleu cheese” was the official spelling and went around “correcting” people who wrote it the English way.

  43. LH, well, I’m talking about :

    David L.: “…I remain puzzled how ‘bleu’ came about in the first place.”
    LH: “I always wondered about that too.”

  44. Oh, right! Well, you’re talking very sensibly about it.

  45. I don’t think the “skimmel”/”mug” distinction exists in German either, all “Schimmel” to me.
    Same for me.
    @Stu: I didn’t know that. Danke!

  46. David Marjanović says

    Everything Hans said.

    And strangely […] it affected me powerfully.

    I know exactly why. You’ll figure it out.

    (Me, I’m proud of myself for noticing ħ-r-r “free”, as in taħrīr “liberation”, once the subtitles set in about halfway through the video.)

    No, I’m sure it was simply a matter of “That’s how the French spell it, so it’s classy.”

    Any attempts by Britons to pronounce it “blur”?

  47. PlasticPaddy says
    I suppose this would work if the idea is mould > fungal disease

  48. “I know exactly why. You’ll figure it out” – If you try to explain, I’ll be sincerely grateful.

    The song I listened right before this one is حلم. I generally have difficult relationship with “ladies with beautiful voices singing beatiful songs”: I don’t understand in them. It is not my default music, while songs that I truly like are rare, so usually when youtube advertises a pretty and well-dressed singer (Arab youtube has great many of them, with or without spanish guitar) I just ignore him or her.

    In this case I understand well why the song is popular (though pictures in “shorts remixing this video” in the description do raise my eyebrows:)). But then I listened to the revolutionary song and it is much better and I don’t understand why.

    ħ-r-r – Also Swahili uhuru🙂

  49. Any attempts by Britons to pronounce it “blur”?

    It has already been established that Britons don’t use spelling “bleu” for cheese, so the question of pronunciation does not arise in that context. However, CALD says cordon bleu has Frenchified pronunciation for both words in UK, but for “cordon” or neither in US.

  50. J.W. Brewer says

    Enough about bleu cheese; I’m more concerned by the OP’s implication that the “days of … gin on the verandah”* are over and done with. Where is one supposed to drink one’s gin instead, then?

    *FWIW the google books Ngram viewer reports that the last year in which the “verandah” spelling was more common than the “veranda” variant was 1986. EDITED TO ADD: And that’s because of those goshdarn British imperialists off oppressing the Kenyans, if you limit the inquiry to the American English subcorpus, “verandah” has not been the more common spelling since 1851.

  51. David Eddyshaw says

    In Ghana, the associations of “verandah” are rather different, e.g.

    [“Verandah Boys/Nkrumah” is the thing to search. With the “h”, moreover.]

  52. J.W. Brewer says

    I know just enough to be dangerous about the post-colonial status of gin production in Uganda, but nothing at all about the situation in the former Gold Coast or any other part of formerly-British West Africa.

    In this piece, the writer compares the migration of the word “verandah” from Sanskrit to Ghana with the literal migration of the writer’s grandfather (“an eccentric, narcissistic pharmacist”) from Sierra Leone.

  53. Where is one supposed to drink…
    Oppie stoep.

    Russian verandas now usually have thin wooden walls and glass windows (or rather glass walls), bookshelves and everything. Presently it is a summer annex to the house, which you can turn in a normal veranda, if you open windows.

  54. The song I listened right before this one is حلم. I generally have difficult relationship with “ladies with beautiful voices singing beatiful songs”

    Makes quite a contrast with حلمة. Who’d have thought one little ta marbuta could change the nature of the dream so radically?

    (In my part of Algeria, the root ḥlm has no colloquial reflex; the noun has been replaced by منام, previously “sleep”. Guess Tunisia still has the older form.)

  55. Indian and Tagalog forms here قرنفل do look as if Dhivehi and Swahili forms are borrowed from Indic languages

    The Wiktionary etymology at قرنفل :

    Imported from India. Compare Tamil கராம்பு (karāmpu), கிராம்பு (kirāmpu), കരയാമ്പ് (karayāmpŭ), ഗ്രാമ്പൂ (grāmpū), Sinhalese කරාබු (karābu), Tagalog klabong, klabos, kalabumpako, all meaning cloves. From the same source Ancient Greek καρυόφυλλον (karuóphullon), Amharic ቅርንፉድ (ḳərnəfud).

    That etymology leaves off “Malayalam” before “കരയാമ്പ് (karayāmpŭ), ഗ്രാമ്പൂ (grāmpū)”.

    Others have taken the forms for “cloves” in languages of southern South Asia to be loanwords from Portuguese (cravo “nail; clove”), as Dalgado, p. 127, or here. The Tamil Lexicon of the University of Madras took the Tamil from Urdu here. And so on… I have no idea where the truth lies, and I can’t look into this matter further at the moment because I am travelling during the Eid holiday week, but I wonder if there is a more recent treatment that has sorted all this out.

    In any case, the Tagalog forms listed in the Wiktionary are all likely from Spanish clavo “nail; clove”, plural clavos, by hook or by crook. Tagalog pako (in kalabumpako) is “nail, spike”, with related words in Malay (paku) and Javanese.

  56. I wondered what the word for “cloves” was in the languages of the native range of the clove tree. The Wiktionary gives bualawa as the word for “cloves” in the language of Ternate. The Wiktionary notes similar words in the Malayo-Polynesian languages of the northern Maluku islands and offers a further breakdown of the elements in this word. Compare Malay bunga “flower”, and Old Javanese lawaṅ “cloves”. A word of the family of Old Javanese lawaṅ was probably the source of Sanskrit लवङ्गम् lavaṅgam “cloves”, with its further developments in Middle and Modern Indo-Aryan (Hindi-Urdu लौंग لونگ lauṅg “cloves”, etc.); see Jan Gonda (1932) “Etymologica” Acta Orientalia 10 here for a fuller treatment of this topic.

  57. Unrelated: I just though… No, I thought it ages ago, I just thought that I can tell it:

    Each time I encounter the word dunya “world” I feel it is a Slavic (or otherwise Northern) word impossible and funny in Arabic context:-/

    (duna l-qusuur in Fairouz’s song (a poem by Gibran Khalil Gibran) has somewhat similar effect. Each time I remember that dūn is “fortress” in Celtic:)).

  58. Xerîb, “Ar.” karumpfel in Dalgado made me jump:) But it’s a transcription of some guy whose name is Rumpf.

    Speaking seriously about Indian words: first similar words are used in Indochina.
    And second, it is a continent with exceptionally long history of written literature. Knowing when exactly the form appeared and this literature (in many langugaes) and when it spread would help.

    the Tagalog forms listed in the Wiktionary are all likely from Spanish clavo”

  59. David Marjanović says

    “I know exactly why. You’ll figure it out” – If you try to explain, I’ll be sincerely grateful.

    Sorry. I thought it was the content of the lyrics. If it’s the tune or the singer, I don’t know your taste anywhere near well enough to say anything.

  60. @DM, no, not “the tune”, rather the song (that is, a combination of music and its lyrics).

    And I know nothing about the singer. Just someone youtube offered in “related” for quite a while (it somehow learned of my Tunisian connections).

    (not sure why you thought “the tune or the singer”)

  61. (not sure why you thought “the tune or the singer”)” – Ah! I think because of the comparison with the previous song. I said that I understand why people like the first, but not why the second affects me so much. And indeed many people who don’t understand Arabic will like the first song because of singing. But this does not mean they are comparable, I only compared them because I listened to them and linked the first one because I mentioned it.

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