We Are The Wor(l)d II
Bill Long 8/16/08
Continuing our International Tour
When you engage in an international tour of words, you may become quite humbled, realizing that after all your diligent work you may be able to describe one or two phenomena from another culture; thus, you have barely scraped the surface of understanding. Then, when you consider that there are thousands of these cultures in the world, your breath is just taken away from you. But, before that happens, let's continue.
Siskin and Satsuma
Actually, when you begin with a siskin, a fairly popular bird in much of the Northwest, you have a bird which is present throughout the world. A siskin is a small song bird, "in some respects closely allied to the goldfinch." Here is a Carduelis spinus, with its incredible tufted tail and yellow and black overlapping feathers. When roof tiles overlap, they are called imbricated tiles; but I am sure there is another word for overlapping bird feathers. Anyone know what it is?
The satsuma is a sort of tangerine, known also as a mikan. Here is an article on them. We are told that the mikan originated in Wenzhou, a city in Zhejiang province in China. Zhejiang is the easternmost province in the "fat" or thick midsection of China. It was, like many Chinese products, introduced into Japan, probably in the 15th century, and then mikan were brought to the US from the Satsuma Province in Japan in the 1870s. Hence the name. They are most popularly known in the US as mandarin oranges; indeed, the satsuma is a variety of mandarins.
Kampong and Kombaloi
Now that we are on an international "roll," let's stay in East Asia with the word kampong. It is simply the Malay word for inclosure or "village." Often you will see a two-word phrase, "kampong xxxx", to denote a particular village in Malaysia or Singapore. For example Kampong Glam takes its name from the Gelam tree which used to grow in the vicinity, and was the historic seat of Malay royalty in Singapore. The word is also used in Cambodia. Kampong Cham, for example, is the capital of the Cambodian province Kampong Cham. I didn't realize it, but it is, with 63,771 people, the third largest city in all of Cambodia. To introduce a few more terms; it is a city divided into four khums and 31 phums (villages). The more you know...
So, let's race back across the globe, which we can do when we write about words, to Greece and the notion of kombaloi. Komboloi are worry beads, a "fidget toy, used to relieve stress and generally pass the time." No English-language dictionary I have uses the term, but this article tells us, without a doubt, what they are. They don't have a religious significance. I was fascinated to see that they could be made of "turquoise, obsidian, Faturan, and Yemeni amber." Faturan? Well, for everything in life there is a story. Often more than one story, in fact. This article tells us the following:
"Faturan is a sort of synthetic amber. Cheaper than amber, and much more durable. Faturan was invented by an Egyptian chemist, and then the formula was lost during World War II. Never been successfully duplicated since. The seller tells me that these faturan beads date back to the period from around 1920 to 1940."
The article suggests that the typical kumbaloi has 33 worry beads, along with a large bead called "the priest" and then two beads at the very end. It seems, from looking at a number of pictures of komboloi, that there really isn't a fixed number or arrangement of the beads. No one is clear about the origin of the beads, but they may have derived from the Arabic/Muslim misbaha. As this article says, the misbaha, also known as the Tasbih, perhaps originated in Persia. The misbaha is used to perform dhikr, an Islamic practice focusing on the remembrance of God. In Islam there are 99 names of God, and if there were 33 beads, one could run through them three times in the process of intoning all 99 names of God. So, an innocent-looking word such as kombaloi can usher us into some of the most interesting intercultural connections. Symbiosis indeed!
Concluding with Gomuti
A gomuti (is the singluar gomutus?) is a palm tree, Arenga pinnata, native to Malay and the East Indies, but cultivated elsewhere, especially in India. It grows to the height of about 55-60 feet and is rather rare in the United States. Here is a picture and description. We are told that the sap is harvested for commercial use in SE Asia, yielding a sugar known in India as gur. Here is an article on the palm, which really has several names, one of which is "sugar palm." As the article says, it is cultivated as a primary source of sugar througout Eastern Asia and India. The sweet juice is collected from the cut flower stalks, boiled down into table sugar or fermented into an alcoholic beverage similar to rum.
I think after these brief trips around the world that I need to return to some "home"-based words...