Literary notes: Urdu books on etymologies and word histories -
Pakistan Press Foundation

Literary notes: Urdu books on etymologies and word histories

Pakistan Press Foundation

ONE of the blames that our beloved (read: poor) Urdu language has to bear with is that it does not have the kind of reference works that the English language boasts of. For example, on the topic of word history and etymology one can find scores of books in English but Urdu, say the naysayers, has nothing to offer on this subject.

So let us bust another myth about Urdu. The fact is: Urdu does have books on etymologies and word histories.

Etymology means, says Concise Oxford English Dictionary, “an account of the origins and the development in meaning of a word”. And the record tells us that Urdu writers and scholars had begun writing etymologies as early as in the late 19th century.

Mohammad Hussain Azad was, perhaps, the first scholar to have written in Urdu about the origin of certain words. Aside from his Aab-i-hayat (1880) that describes origin of some words, Azad has described in his Sukhan daan-i-Faris (1887) interesting histories of many words. Waheeduddin Saleem has mentioned the roots of words in his Vaz’e-i-istilahaat (1921). Syed Sulaiman Nadvi in his different works has explained the word histories and especially in Nuqoosh-i-Sulaimani (1939) he has devoted a full chapter on history of certain words that is as interesting as surprising. Mohammad Bin Umer in his book Urdu mein dakheel europi alfaaz (1955) has listed a large number of words with their origin.

Aside from these books, some of the Urdu books specifically on etymologies and word histories are:

Almufrad-ul-murakkab (1917)

This is the first book ever written in Urdu on etymology. Written by Maulvi Abdul Lateef and published from Hyderabad Deccan in 1917, it describes the Persian words that are in fact compounds but have become a single word over the centuries. The 100-page volume is extremely rare to come by these days.

Sarguzasht-i-alfaaz (1923)

Inspired by the famous work On the study of words (1888) by Richard Chenevix Trench (1807-1886), Sarguzasht-i-alfaaz was penned by Ahmed Deen (1866-1929). Some parts of it were published in Makhzan in 1901. Trench was an archbishop but was deeply interested in words too and had also played a role in the idea of Greater Oxford Dictionary.

Ahmed Deen has mentioned Trench’s work in his preface but, unlike Trench, he has discussed mostly the origin of Urdu, Persian, Hindi and Arabic words. First published in 1923 and reprinted in 1969, this interesting and valuable book was published again in 2008 by Islamabad’s Poorab Academy.

Tehqeeq-ul-lughaat (1963)

Though a slim volume, this book by Dr Sheikh Inayatullah (1901-1977), a professor at Punjab University’s Arabic department, gives a very rich and long bibliography, mentioning Arabic, Latin, German, Turkish and Arabic works on etymologies and word histories.

Lafzon ki anjuman mein (1996)

Written by an Indian scholar Dr Syed Hamid Hussain and published from Delhi, the book is divided into several parts, and each part deals with a separate topic, like professions, dresses, measures, sports, calendar, countries, etc. Although a few histories are doubtful, on the whole it is a useful book.

Parda uthadoon agar… (2003)

The full title is Parda uthadoon agar chehra-i-alfaaz se and is derived from Iqbal’s poetry. Written by a Dr F. Raheem and first published from India in 2003, the book has been published, and reprinted several times, by Lahore’s Bait-ul-Hikmat. It is an authentic and erudite work.

The preface by Abdul Jabbar Shakir too is invaluable as it briefly gives the history and bibliography of such earlier works in Urdu.

Lafzon ki kahani lafzon ki zabani (2004)

This in fact is an Urdu translation of Khaled Ahmed’s very informative and entertaining book The Bridge of Words between East and West (Vanguard, 2001). Translated by Shiraz Raz, the book was published by Lahore’s Mash’al Books.

Siyahat-i-lafzi (2007)

This book takes into account the origin of words as well as their usage. But much has been lifted from different old works on the topic but no acknowledgement or references are given. Written by Mumtaz Dahar, the book was published by Sharjeel Publications, Mailsi, district Vehari.

Lafzon ka dilchasp safar (2007)

This book by Dr S.A. Hashmi is indeed very interesting as it gives word histories as well as how a word travelled from one language to another and how it changed spellings and pronunciations along the way. Karachi’s City Book Point published it.

Hain kavaakib kuchh… (2007)

As the title (taken from a line by Ghalib) suggests, the book discusses the words that are apparently Arabic and are borrowed in Urdu but they have lost some shades of their meanings and are now used with different nuances in Urdu. Ameer Hussain Farhaad is the writer of this self-published book.

Aside from these book some authentic dictionaries of Urdu, too, give etymologies.

So Urdu may not be as rich as English when it comes to books on word histories and etymologies, but it does have a dozen or so books that can guide the curious as well as the naysayer.