Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Cooties in your poontang: Filipino words in the English language

Tagalog, the primary language of the Philippines, has not contributed a great many words to the English language, but those few that are derived from it are quite interesting.

Certain words may have entered the English language via the Spanish, who had first claimed the islands in 1521. In 1898, the USA annexed the Philippines following the Spanish-American war, and continued their colonial relationship until 1946. During this time American soldiers and sailors obviously picked up a few words and brought them back to the States, where they entered the popular vocabulary.

To live out in the boondocks, means in an out-of-the-way place, a remote brushy area. The term is of Tagalog origin, although it is not clear if it is derived from bundok, meaning mountain, or bunduk, meaning hinterland.

Yo-yo is a word apparently derived from the Tagalog or Ilocano languages, but there is possibly some doubt about this. Certainly the person who started the craze in the 1920s was a Filipino immigrant to the US named Pedro Flores. The yo-yo was not invented in the Philippines - it's origin goes back at least as far as ancient Greece. It was known in Britain and France as far back as the 18th century, but did not become a mass phenomenon. It was known under various names, such as "bandalore" or "quiz" in England, and "l'emigrette" or "jou-jou" in France. At some point it arrived in the Philippines (via China? Spain?) and became a popular toy there. There are at least two theories about the origin of the word "yo-yo". One is that it means "come-come" in Ilocano. There was apparently a traditional weapon used by Filipino hunters called a yo-yo, consisting of a rock attached to a long piece of rope. Very different to our modern yo-yo, but the similarity could have led to the same name being adopted. Alternatively, it could be derived from the French term "jou-jou."

Cooties is a term most commonly used by children, a reference to an imaginary infectious disease or parasite caught through contact with children of the opposite sex. Its origin is probably from Tagalog word kutu, meaning lice. There is some conjecture about this though, as kutu with the same meaning also occurs the related Malay language. White "cooties" is today a far more common term in US English than British English (which would point to a Filipino origin because of the US-Philippine connection) there are records of the word being used by British soldiers in WW1 (which opens the possibility of a Malay origin, as Malaysia was a British colony). A dual origin is possible, or even an origin in Polynesia, where the word also exists.

Ever store documents in a manila folder? Well, long before they were made out of thin cardboard, they were fashioned from the trunk fibres of the abaca (Musa textilis), a tree of the banana family. The Philippines capital city of Manila was a major producer of this fibre, known as "manila hemp".

Ylang-ylang is one of those fragrances you'll frequently come across in soaps and scented oils. It is the Tagalog name for a flowering tree (Cananga odorata) native to the Philippines and Indonesia.



Poontang is a slang word primarily used in American English, meaning "vagina". It derives from the Tagalog word putang, which can mean both "f*ck" and "whore". Putang is in turn obviously derived from the Spanish word puta ("whore"). There is an interesting similarity to the slang term punani, also meaning "vagina", which originates in either Hawaii or Jamaica. While the similarity is almost certainly coincidental, it is possible that knowledge of the term punani influenced the adding of the extra "n" to putang. Or possibly the extra "n" made it sound nicer because Americans didn't like the idea of lusting after something that sounded too much like "pooh-tang". Eww.



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Koreans, you too can curse like an American

English words of Indian origin

The risks of tonal languages

Communication challenges in Malaysia

"Pulp Fiction" in Italian, German, Turkish, Spanish and French

How Muslim names evolve across the world

6 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. Intersting, but you're wrong about poontang. It's a derivative of the French, putain, meaning whore, and comes into American English via French creole spoken in Louisiana.

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    1. Anon, you may be right, but have you got any sources you can cite?
      In any case the origin words (French putain and Spanish puta) are very similar.

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  3. kutu where cooties was derived from is a Malay-origin word. It's also a tagalog word (kuto) but is just a derivative of kutu.

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    1. I disagree. Most Austronesian languages (ie. the languages of Island SE Asia and Oceania) have a word for louse which is similar to "kuto" or "kutu". It is clearly a word that was present in proto-Austronesian; which means it does not have a Malay origin per se. Rather it has an origin in the ancient languages that would eventually become both Malay and Tagalog.

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  4. Boondocks , i.e. rural area, from Tagalog for mountains.

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