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Why is it called ‘vetti vellai’? And why is salary ‘sambalam’ and marriage ‘thirumanam’?

What do KD and OC mean Exciting etymologies of Chennai lingo and Tamil words
Friday, September 23, 2016 - 15:54

These are words we use every single day. When we want to rag a freeloader friend, we ask, “Dei KD, again you got a mobile phone in OC?”

Some of these are not used often, but we hear them enough to understand their meanings, like ‘thirumanam’, which means ‘marriage’.

And yet, we don’t know where these words come from and what their exact meaning is. Some of the histories will stun you, and are also great illustrations of how languages evolve.

KD

A conman is usually called a ‘KD’ person. The term is also used to refer to petty criminals and regular smart-asses around us.

KD actually stands for “Known Dacoit” (sometimes also “Known Delinquent” or “Known Depredator”). In pre-Independence India, the Indian police started using the phrase to refer to classify criminals who were known to them. As time passed, the short-form ‘KD’ entered common parlance, and now the term is used to refer to a variety of people, from petty criminals and scamsters to street-smarts.

OC

In its street usage, OC generally means ‘free’.

At the East India Company, postal couriers sent by employees for company related work used to be categorized as ‘On Company Service’ or OCS. Several employees were known to send even their personal posts through the company service by getting it stamped as ‘OCS’. This was referred to commonly as just ‘OC’. “I have sent the post on OC,” one would say, meaning “I have sent it on the free service.”

Now, the term ‘OC’ is used to refer to anything which is obtained for free.

Vetti Vellai

An unemployed and lazy person is mocked as being ‘vetti’ – “He is sitting at home vetti,” we lament. “Vetti Vellai” would refer to doing useless work, like stalking friends on Facebook during office hours.

That’s because the phrase was used to refer to unpaid work.

Before the advent of well-planned water storage systems, a common way of storing water, especially in the south, was to dig out small water bodies, like ponds. This was considered social work since everyone in the community would benefit from it, and men would volunteer for this work. In return, they would not expect anything from the community. This was called “vetti vellai”. The word has since metamorphosed to mean work which is considered of no value.

Mani

“Mani enna?” would mean “What’s the time?”

But it is commonly known that ‘mani’ means ‘bell’. So how did ‘bell’ become the word for ‘time’ in Tamil?

Before we built clocks, there was a central bell in each town which helped people keep a track of time. For instance, if the time was 1’o clock, the bell would be rung once.

The original word for ‘time’ in Tamil is ‘neram’. Even now, to ask “How much time has it been?” in Tamil, we say, “Evalo neram aachu?” But to refer to a specific point in time, we say ‘mani’. In fact, many also refer to clocks as ‘mani koondu’.

Curry, or Kari

Kari, or ‘curry’ could mean a lot of things. In general Tamil parlance, it means ‘meat’. In vegetarian households, it could just mean ‘vegetables’. In the West, ‘curry’ is used to refer to a variety of Indian dishes.

But what does this word actually mean?

According to food historians, until the 15th century, chilies were not used in India, and instead pepper was. Pepper was referred to as ‘kari’ in Tamil. So when vegetables were prepared, it was called ‘kaai kari’. For meat preparations, extra ‘kari’ was used to make it spicy. As time passed, the word was used differently across the social spectrum, with most using the word to just refer to meat, since that was the dominant ingredient used in meat dishes.

Sambalam

The commonly used Tamil word for ‘salary’ is ‘sambalam’.

In pure Tamil ‘Oodhiyam’ is the word for salary, but it isn’t in use anymore.

Interestingly, the etymology of the English word ‘salary’ goes back to the Latin word ‘sal’, meaning ‘salt’. It’s similar for ‘sambalam’ too.

Just like Roman soldiers were allowed a ‘salt’ allowance, in Tamil Nadu, rice and salt were given as payment for work. In early Tamil, the word for rice was the ‘samba’ (since Samba was the rice which was used then), and salt was called ‘alam’. So the word for payment became ‘sambalam’ and it soon replaced the word ‘udhiyam’.

Thirumanam

The etymology of the word ‘Thirumanam’ to mean ‘marriage’ goes to the very concept of marriage itself.

In agricultural families, marriages were referred to as “Ayiram kaalathu payir”. It was believed that just like a flower and fragrance cannot be separated, a husband and wife should not be either. One of the words for ‘fragrance’ is ‘manam’, and with the addition of the respectful word ‘thiru’ to it, marriages become ‘thirumanam’.

If you find this exciting, don’t forget to watch the ‘Varthaiyum Varalarum’ segment of ‘Arivu Kozhundu’ program on NEWS7 TAMIL at 9:30am every Sunday.

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