Evolution of a word: How ‘menteri’ became ‘mandarin’

Ida Lim
The Atlantic article is not the first time that the origin story of the word ‘mandarin’ has been explored. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 13 — Guess what, the word “mandarin” — now commonly used to describe the Chinese language — has its roots in the Malay word “menteri”.

US publication The Atlantic, in a recent report, wrote about the word’s origin and how it was tied to the history of a colonial era.

“In the 16th century, Portuguese explorers were among the first Europeans to reach China. Traders and missionaries followed, settling into Macau on land leased from China’s Ming dynasty rulers.

“The Portuguese called the Ming officials they met mandarim, which comes from menteri in Malay and, before that, mantrī in Sanskrit, both of which mean ‘minister’ or ‘counsellor.’

“It makes sense that Portuguese would borrow from Malay; they were simultaneously colonising Malacca on the Malay peninsula.”

The magazine said the word “mandarin” would be considered an exonym — an external name typically given by foreigners outside a place, or a group or community, or a language.

It noted other examples of exonyms, such as Bombay and Ceylon which originated from Portuguese colonial masters. These two places have since been renamed Mumbai and Sri Lanka respectively.

The Atlantic article is not the first time that the origin story of the word “mandarin” has been explored.

In an interview published on July 19, 2009 by local paper Utusan Malaysia, Royal Professor Ungku Aziz said his studies showed the word “mandarin” had its origins in the Malay language.

“The origin is when the Portuguese wanted to go to China, they wanted to meet with senior officials and ask what is their status. So, the Portuguese in Melaka said ‘menteri’. But the Portuguese then could not speak the Malay language well.

“So the word ‘menteri’ was pronounced as ‘menterin’ and when they went to China to meet with senior officials, finally the word ‘menterin’ was changed to become ‘mandarin,” he was quoted as saying in the interview.

What the English dictionaries say

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s online entry on the word, “mandarin” became part of the English language in 1589 and originated from the Portuguese word “mandarim” that was developed from the Malay word “menteri” and the Sanskrit word “mantrin” for counsellor.

The Oxford Dictionary’s website also puts the word “mandarin” as being first used in the late 16th century, similarly noting its origins as being “from Portuguese mandarim, via Malay from Hindi mantrī ‘counsellor’”.

Many languages, including Malay and English, have words adopted from other languages.

In May 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) — which also lists local lingo — added 19 Singapore English words, including hawker centre, lepak, shiok, sotong, teh tarik and wet market.

In September 2016, the OED added additional words including char kway teow, chicken rice, rendang, kopitiam and mamak.

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