Surprise! 10 English words you didn’t know had Malaysian roots

It’s almost Malaysia day. Look at your Facebook newsfeed and you’ll probably find a ton of articles on what makes us uniquely Malaysian.

So we’ll add to that. What we’re going to do here is introduce you to a bunch of words that originated from this gorgeous country and show you how it influenced the world.

The Malay word ‘amok’ is arguably the most popular example in which the phenomenon of a murderous blood rage is so unique that only the original Malay word can do justice to it.

Hence, when someone ‘runs amok’, he is said to be in an out-of-control frenzy of violence and/or killing.

The reason our national language has such influence worldwide is due to the importance of Malacca as an international trading port back in the day. People from many trading civilisations intermingled here, coming from as far as China, India, and the Middle East.

Goods traded in Malacca – particularly porcelain, silks and spices – then made their way even further abroad to Europe. As Malay was the lingua franca used in all the spheres of Malaccan society – social, political, cultural, economic and intellectual – it was only natural that some of that influence would be reflected on the world stage as the traders took the ideas, goods and some words back with them from Malacca.

Strictly speaking the roots of these words come from a time back when Malaysia didn’t even exist yet. So by ‘Malaysian’, what we’re really referring to is our historical heritage. The etymology of some of these words may be open to more debate but the history of the words in this list has been generally accepted as true. But still, it is pretty interesting to see how our neck of the woods has influenced the world of words today.

Here are 10 English words you probably didn’t know has its roots right here at home.


Bamboo is a fast-growing, woody species of grass that can be used for a variety of purposes. There are over 1200 different species world-wide and it can grow to heights of 30m or more. Perhaps the most famous use of bamboo is as the setting for one of Chow Yun Fatt’s sword-fighting scenes in the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The word ‘bamboo’ itself is actually derived from an old Malay word, samambu. But, wait a minute! The Malay word for Bamboo is buluh, isn’t it?

Well the fact is, back in the 16th century, there are records of the Dutch calling this plant bamboe, which was probably derived from the Portuguese bambu. It’s an accepted fact that bamboe and bamboo are derived from the Malay word mambu or samambu.

But language does not stand still. It is always evolving, and in modern Malay, buluh is commonly used instead of mambu.


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Camphor is a waxy, white substance with a strong aroma. It is traditionally used in ointments for relieving arthritis, and stiff muscles or joints. It is also used to treat bruises, insect bites, burns and small wounds. In modern times, it has industrial uses and is also an ingredient in everyday products such as Zam-Buk, Vicks Vaporub and mothballs.

Camphor is extracted from the camphor tree, found abundantly in Sumatra, Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo. Early Arab traders rushed eagerly to trade in this region as camphor was worth more than gold at that time! Ancient international trade between India, East Asia and the Middle East made camphor widely known throughout Arabia in pre-Islamic times. Camphor is even mentioned in the Quran as a flavouring for drinks. In olden-day Europe, it was used to flavour sweet foods.

Just as the substance had travelled extensively in trade, the word “camphor” has evolved along the ancient trade routes.

The modern word “camphor” derives from the French word camphre, which itself is derived from Medieval Latin camfora. Camfora is taken from the Arabic kafur, which in turn was taken from the Old Malay word kapur. As in, pokok kapur, the Malay name for the camphor tree.


In modern times, “compound” refers to a cluster of buildings within an enclosure. The enclosure could be a wall, fence, hedge or other structure. It may even be formed by the buildings themselves, when they are built around an open area.

Originally, the word “compound” was used to describe “an enclosure for a factory or settlement of Europeans based in the East”. Later, it was used to describe South African diamond miners’ camps, and later evolved to refer to any large fenced-in spaces.

The word “compound” originates from the 1670s, derived from the Dutch word kampoeng. This is very clearly derived from the Malay word kampung, meaning “village” or a “group of buildings”.


A cockatoo is a large, exotic bird that is native to Australia, New Guinea and Indonesia. Cockatoos are related to parrots, but it has many of its own characteristics. It is especially known for the majestic crest on its head.

The word “cockatoo” dates from the early 1600s, and is derived from the Dutch kaketoe. Many other variants existed in the 17th century, including cacato, cockatoon and crockadore. Cokato, cocatore and cocatoo were also used in the 18th century. Eventually, the English-speaking world decided to spell it as “cockatoo”, influenced by the word “cock” (referring to the male fowl, of course).

The original word? It comes from the Malay name for the bird – kakaktua, a combination of kakak (elder sister) and tua (old). The Malay word could also possibly be derived from the call of the wild cockatoo.


Any kid unfortunate enough to be diagnosed as having the imaginary “cooties” disease faced instant ostracisation by his peers. It’s all pretty fun – unless you’re the one diagnosed with “cooties”. Then you may need therapy.

The earliest recorded use of the word “cooties” was during World War I, when it was popular slang for “body lice”. Later, a hand-held game, the Cootie Game, was produced in 1915. It involved tilting capsules (the cooties) into a trap over a background illustration of a battlefield. Other cootie games followed, all involving some form of bug or cootie. “The Game of Cootie” was launched in 1948 and became so successful that in 2003 the Toy Industry Association included it in its list of the 100 most memorable toys of the 20th century.

And where did “cooties” come from? It is believed to be derived from “kutu”, the Malay word for flea, or perhaps even “kudis” the Malay word for scabies, a type of skin disease caused by mites.

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A “godown” is a “warehouse”. This word is still used in the former British colonies today but rarely used in the West.

“Godown” was commonly used by the British during colonial times to refer to warehouses in East Asia, especially those at a dockside. Now, in English, this word doesn’t make sense at all, because for a building used to store valuable goods, it could hardly have been a felicitous to create a name for it indicating a downward trajectory. Heaven forbid that a warehouse should “go down” in any sense of the phrase! So how did it come about?

See, the British East India Company had many adventures all over the far east as it expanded its empi…er, trading activities. In their many travels, the Company encountered the Malay word “gudang”, which means “warehouse” and they thought it would be a good idea to just take it and use it for their own purposes. Which they promptly did.


Whenever popular culture depicts gongs, the large flattish Chinese version usually comes to mind. But the English word “gong” has nothing to do with the Chinese at all!

In fact, the word “gong” began circulation in the English language only from the 1600’s, and is derived from the Malay word “gong”, which is exactly the sound a Malay gong makes when it’s struck.


The word “Ketchup” evolved from “catsup”, and refers to a sweet/sour red sauce that is claimed to be made from the freshest tomatoes. But the original “catsup” recipe was something entirely different.

Believe it or not, “catsup” originally referred to a fish sauce. Over time, the word came to be used for a wide variety of sauces. The Cook’s Oracle, written by one William Kitchiner in 1817, devotes 7 pages to recipes for different types of catsup (his book has 1 spelling of ketchup, 72 of catsup), including walnut, mushroom, oyster, cockle and mussel, tomato, white (vinegar and anchovies were main ingredients), cucumber, and pudding catsup. Chambers’s Encyclopaedia (1870) lists mushroom, walnut, and tomato catsup as “the three most esteemed kinds.”

Eventually, tomato catsup emerged as the dominant recipe in the US around the 1800’s. Since the 20th century, “ketchup” has become synonymous with tomato catsup.

So where did “ketchup” come from? It traces its beginnings to the 1700’s, when “catsup” was derived from the Malay “kichap”. But that is probably not an original Malay word as it may have come from the Chinese “koeychiap” (brine of fish). Catsup is a failed attempt at ‘English-ing’ the word, and it eventually became known as “ketchup”.


Today, the word “launch” refers to a large motorboat used to carry passengers for short distances, especially on a lake or a river, or from the land to a larger boat. Originally, the word “launch” referred to the largest boat carried by a warship in the days when they still shot cannon balls at each other.

The English word “launch” is actually borrowed from the Portuguese lancha which means “barge”. The Portuguese, in turn, had borrowed it from the Malay word “lanchar” which means pretty much what it means today: “gliding smoothly without effort”, which is what everyone hopes a boat would do.


Pangolins are usually in the news for the wrong reasons. Not that they’ve done anything wrong. On the contrary, these cute(ish) fellows are fast becoming extinct as a result of massive poaching. Pangolins are hunted for their skins, scales, and meat for the superstitious belief that they possess special healing powers. By the early 2000s, demand had so far outstripped supply that an unusual barter trade was proposed: Thai smugglers would give insurgents in Indonesia’s Aceh province up to five AK-47 rifles in exchange for one pangolin, according to the International Crisis Group.

This odd-looking mammal is found in various parts of Asia and Africa. It is the only mammal with scales, and it’s other distinctive features are its huge front claws and a long-tongue for scooping termites and ants out their nest. In Malaysia, the pangolin is called the tenggiling.

The word “pangolin” began circulation in the mid-1700s, describing a “scaly toothless mammal of Java”. Pangolin is derived from the Malay word “pengguling” or “one that rolls up” from the animal’s habit of curling into a ball when threatened.

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