sahib

I recently read a submitted story in which someone who seemed to be from Africa used the word "sahib." "That's not right," I said to myself; "there's another word like that that's used for some of the same kinds of things pertaining to Africa. Now what is it?"

I did some web searches; no dice. I went back to the story, but I couldn't focus on it.

I did some more web searches. Fruitless. I tried again with the story, but the word I was missing was driving me crazy.

I picked up Mike Resnick's Kirinyaga and flipped through it. Nothing. I had a vague idea that there was a feminine form of the word, often used in reference to white girls in Africa in the colonial adventure-story tradition, so I picked up Beryl Markham's West With the Night and leafed through that; still nothing. Tried to read the story again. Couldn't.

Looked in Hemingway. Nothing.

Had a sudden brainstorm. "Aha! I know what the word is! It's 'sahib'! ...Oh, wait, no, that's the one I started with."

Finally decided to drop Mary Anne a note and see if she could tell me the word; she's done post-colonial studies. Surely she would know.

Halfway through the note, I remembered the word.

I'm gonna use the "Extended Entry" feature for once, to give you a chance to think of the word before I say it. Do you know which word I mean? Hint: turns out there isn't a feminine version; I was confused.

The word I was thinking of, of course, is "bwana." I finally thought of it when I remembered that Mike Resnick did a column in Speculations called "Ask Bwana."

And the feminine form I was thinking of was "memsahib," which is of course South Asian rather than African.

A subsequent web search, now that I knew what words I was looking for, turned up some interesting stuff; most particularly A History of English Words, by Geoffrey Hughes, via Google Book Search. On pp. 313-314, Hughes is talking about "the lexical aftermath" (great phrase) of British colonial rule, and he notes that in the post-colonial period, the terms "king" and "queen" aren't used so much. (I'm not sure, from the little context provided in the preview, whether he's talking about in English in general, or in former colonies in particular.) He then adds:

This 'lexical vacuum' has been filled by an amazingly heterogeneous vocabulary of exotic terms, nearly all of them the legacy of colonialism. They include baas, big wig, big cheese, boss, bwana, chief, high up, honcho, memsahib, mogul, mugwump, nabob, pasha, sahib, sultan, supremo, tai-pan and tycoon. [...] This field of terms has, of course, many registers, allowing a writer to show respect or openly criticize the person in power.

Anyway, turns out that "bwana" comes from an Arabic word meaning "our father" (by way of Swahili); "memsahib" comes from English "ma'am" plus Hindi & Urdu "sahib"; and "sahib" also derives ultimately from Arabic. So the terms' origins aren't so different after all; they just took roundabout routes to the modern era.