Monday, May 12, 2014

By Any Other Name: Words for Henna Across the World

There was a recent post on one of the henna forums online about the etymology of the word ‘henna’ and it occurred to me that exploring the different names for henna and their etymologies might make an interesting subject for a blogpost! I’ve tried to group them by age and area, and of course I’ve stuck mostly to languages that I’m (at least somewhat) familiar with. If you know more names for henna, or more about what I’ve written here, please add them in the comments!!

Ancient Languages: Egypt
Let’s start with the oldest word for henna that we know… It’s actually difficult to say what that might be. In general, identifying plant and animal names in ancient languages is one of the most hotly contested fields of linguistics — it’s hard enough to know exactly what plant or animal a word refers to in any language, and it’s especially difficult when there are no speakers to ask, “Can you point to the plant you mean when you say X?”

The oldest records of henna use come from Egypt, but the textual evidence is very unclear. The most promising candidate for a plant name that might refer to henna is ‘nḥ-imi, or ankh-imy, which might be translated as the ‘Life-is-in-it’-plant (Germer 2008, pg. 42). In hieroglyphs it’s written like this:

You might be able to recognize the word/symbol ankh, for ‘life’. This plant was used during the embalming process, and it was described as protecting the bed of the Pharaoh (Charpentier 1981, pp. 158-159, Germer 2008, pp. 42-43); its scent was thought to bring the dead back to life (Germer 1992, pg. 124). 

Now it is very tempting to connect this to archaeological records of hennaed mummified bodies and starting imagining some postmortem henna ritual in ancient Egypt… BUT we must be very cautious. There is no indication in any Egyptian text that the ‘nḥ-imi plant had any dyeing properties, and other scholars argue that the ‘nḥ-imi plant is not henna, but a type of lotus (Aufrère 1987, pp. 34-35). So the bottom line is we can’t be sure.

Ancient Languages: Semitic
With Semitic languages, it’s a little clearer. Semitic languages have a system of triconsonantal roots: three consonant letters that have a basic meaning which are inflected to form different nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. 

The words for ‘henna’ in Ugaritic [a Northwestern Semitic language closely related to Hebrew], Aramaic, and Biblical Hebrew share the same root, k.p.r., whose basic meaning is ‘to smear, to cover’ — in Ugaritic it would have been pronounced kupru [we think], in Aramaic kuphra, and in Hebrew, kopher. It appears in Ugaritic in the Baal Cycle, and in the Bible in the Song of Songs (1:14) as אֶשְׁכֹּל הַכֹּפֶר eshkol hakopher (hence the title of this blog), 'a cluster of henna blossoms' (Smith 2009, pg. 133; Feliks 1997, pg. 76). It seems that the name comes from the action of smearing the henna paste; the same root also appears in words meaning ‘pitch’ and ‘tar’ (e.g. the pitch used to waterproof Noah’s Ark, Gen. 6:14). The sense of ‘covering’ led to the metaphorical meaning of ‘ransom’ and eventually ‘atonement’ which is where the name of the holiday Yom Kippur comes from. Bet you didn’t think there was a henna connection there!

The face of a linguistic pioneer!
Theophrastus, imagined by the
medieval artist of the Nuremberg
, 1493.
The Semitic root k.p.r., probably the Hebrew kopher, was borrowed into Greek as kupros; it was first used (as far as I can tell) in Peri phutōn historias, ‘Concerning the Investigation of Plants’ (Peri Osmōn 26) by the Greek scientist and philosopher Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BCE). From Greek the word was apparently introduced into late Egyptian Demotic and Coptic as qwpr or kwpr (Johnson 2004), overtaking whatever native Egyptian word had survived for henna.

The Greek kupros was also borrowed into Latin as cyprus. Is there a connection to the island of Cyprus (which is also Kupros in Greek)? It’s difficult to say. The name for the island goes back long before any record of kupros meaning ‘henna’ — at least back to Homer and probably even earlier, to Linear B. My guess is that Greek sailors or merchants, hearing the Semitic word kopher or kupru, assimilated it to sound like a word they were already familiar with (this is a well-known linguistic phenomenon called an ‘expressive loan’ or an ‘eggcorn’). 

Other similar-looking plant words that are probably not related include cypress and cyperus [papyrus]. The plant cyprus was compared by Pliny to the privet (Ligustrum vulgare, French troëne), which is a similar-looking but unrelated plant, and so henna was sometimes called ‘Egyptian privet’ or ‘Egyptian ligustrum.’ Alkanet (Alkanna tinctoria), a Mediterranean plant whose roots produce a red dye, owes its name to the Arabic al-ḥinnā’ but is unrelated to henna.

Modern Languages: Arabic
Arabic, unusually, does not (to my knowledge) have any word for ‘henna’ from the k.p.r. root, even though it is a Semitic language like Hebrew; instead, the most common word is الحنّاء, al-ḥinnā’ (which is, of course, the source of our English word ‘henna’ — more on that below).

Whether kopher or faghiya,
it smells just as sweet.
A cluster of henna blossoms,
photo by Dilip Datta.
There are (or were) other words for henna in Classical Arabic. One common one, irqān or raqān, comes from the root r.q.n., ‘to  dye, to write, to decorate’ — it’s also used to refer to saffron (Steinglass 1884, pg. 429). Another, yaranna’, is a rare word that appears in pre-Islamic poetry, and interestingly, also in Maimonides (Lyall 1918, pg. 62; Meyerhof, 1940, no. 107). The word fāghiya, from the root, ‘to blossom,’ refers to the henna flower and the perfume made from it (Lane, 1863, pg. 2423).

But it is al-ḥinnā’ which is by far the most widespread word for henna. Its etymology is ultimately unclear; the root seems to be ḥ.n.’. which means ‘to dye with henna’... Not much help there, since that's just like saying “henna means henna”. The root can also mean ‘to become green, to be covered in vegetation’ — I’m not sure if that’s related (Lane 1863, pg. 654).

But it is possible that ḥinnā’ may (also) be related to the root ḥ.n.n., which has the basic meaning of ‘compassion’ or ‘tenderness of heart’. It is certainly connected in folk etymologies, so you have sayings in Arabic like al-hinna hanina, “Henna is compassion,” or hinna 'aliya wahen 'alik Allah, “henna yourself and Allah will have compassion on you.”

Modern Languages: Loanwords from Arabic
The Arabic word quickly spread and was borrowed into many languages near and far. Early on it was borrowed into the various dialects of Persian (and other Central Asian languages, like Uzbek or Kazakh) as ḥanā or hanā, first appearing (to my knowledge) in 10th century Iranian poetry. From Persian or Arabic it was borrowed into Turkish as kına, and from there into various Eastern European languages, including Greek as kna, Azeri as qına, Romani as kana, and Russian as khna (‘Alam 2003; Sonnini 1799, pg. 301; Pallas 1801, pp. 352-354; Mackridge 1985, pp. 317-318; Reichl 2012, pg. 691; Silverman 2012, pg. 88; Blažek 2014).

The headword ḥinna in a Judeo-Arabic medical thesaurus,
Rylands Geniza fragment A539-4.
Meanwhile, henna had been introduced to Western Europe in the Middle Ages during the Moorish period of al-Andalus, and the Arabic al-ḥinnā’ had been borrowed into medieval Latin as alchana or alquena, and into medieval Spanish as alheña or alhenya. This survived in Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) where henna was known as alhenya or alhinia into the modern period (Simonsohn, 1997, pg. 454; Furio and Garcia-Oliver 2007, pp. 135, 180-182, 273; Galanté 1937, pg. 106). Similarly, modern Iberian languages still preserve forms like alquena in Catalan and alfeña in Portuguese, derived from medieval Arabic (Corriente 2008, pg. 108).

Judeo-Arabic, like other dialects of Arabic, used al-ḥinnā’ (אלחנא or חיננא). In modern Hebrew, henna is the Arabic-derived חינה, ḥinna or khinna, although the Biblical Hebrew kopher is sometimes used in botanical contexts to refer to the plant. The only other survival of the k.p.r. root in a modern language, to my knowledge, is in Nubian, where the henna night is known as kofferay dibbi (Fernea 1973, pg. 30).

Modern Languages: Africa
In North Africa, the Arabic al-ḥinnā’ is widely used, although Berber languages (like Tamazight, Tashelhit, and Tamasheq) have their own word for henna: anella (Duveyrier 1864, pg. 170; Ritter, 2009, pg. 205). Is this evidence of the survival of pre-Islamic henna practices in North Africa? It’s hard to tell. In some Amazigh areas lḥnā, from Arabic ḥinnā, is also used (Abdel-Massih 1971, pg. 92; Harries 1974, pg. 165). 

West African languages like Yoruba and Hausa also have their own word for henna: lalle or laali (Abraham 1934, pg. 18; Matory 2004, pg. 175), which Kossmann (2005, pg. 70) identifies as a Berber loanword from anella. Interestingly, a descendant of the word laali survives in the African-American Gullah language of the southeast coast of the USA, where lali is a term for hair dye (Turner 1949, pg. 120).

Fingernails dyed with Impatiens,
from Bookish Gardener.
Words for henna often interchange with other dye plants. In East Africa, Swahili uses both mhina / hina, borrowed from the Arabic al-ḥinnā’, and the word mkokowa, referring to the red mangrove (June 2014). Similarly, Amharic uses the Arabic-derived hinna in addition to the word ensosella, referring to Impatiens tinctoria (Kane 1990, pp. 15, 1213).

Modern Languages: Asia
What about Asian languages? I’ll be the first to admit that I know nothing of Asian linguistics so I am nervous stepping into the field; not to mention the fact that there are literally dozens of words for henna across the hundreds of languages in southern Asia. I welcome your contributions in the comments!

The most that I’ll say is that the most common word for henna, mehndi, is Hindi, and derives from the Sanskrit मेन्धिका mendhikā (Monier-Williams 1872, pg. 833). Other common words for henna are found in the Dravidian languages of south India, where henna is known as mayilanchi in Malayalam, gōranṭa in Telugu, and marutōṉṟi in Tamil, each word with many regional variants (Gundert 1872, pg. 790; Brown 1903, pg. 393; Fabricius 1972, pg. 776). I know that there are other interesting words for henna in Chinese, Thai, and other Asian languages but I will keep silent on that topic for lack of knowledge.

Modern Languages: English
Since this blog is in English, I’ll say a few words about the evolution of henna in our own mother tongue.

The earliest mention of henna in any kind of English is in an early medieval Anglo-Saxon gloss on Pliny, where the Greek kupros is transliterated as ciper or cyper, in the word cipersealf, ‘henna-ointment’ (Bosworth and Toller 1921, pg. 142). Similarly, in the earliest English translation of the Bible, John Wycliffe’s 14th-century rendering of the Bible in Middle English, he translates eshkol hakopher in Song of Songs 1:14 as ‘a cluster of cipre tre.’ 

In later translations, kopher seems to have been understood as the place name of Cyprus — Miles Coverdale translates ‘grapes of Cypers’ (1535) — or confused with the similar-sounding camphor [Cinnamomum camphora]. Eshkol hakopher was translated as ‘a cluster of Camphire’ in the Bishop’s Bible (1568) and this reading was retained in the 1611 King James Version.

This caused plenty of confusion; in 1765, John Wesley wrote that he didn’t know exactly what plant ‘camphire’ was, although he could figure out what it represented: “Camphire — We are not concerned to know exactly what this was; it being confessed, that it was some grateful plant, and that it sets forth that great delight which the church hath in the enjoyment of Christ.”

Meanwhile, in the 1600s travellers in the Middle East were encountering henna use and describing it in their travelogues. The first recorded use of the word henna in English according to the OED is in John Pory’s translation of Leo Africanus’s A Geographical Historie of Africa (1600), vol. 1: “They have no oyle of olives, but of another kinde which they call Hena… in colour it is as beautifull as gold.” A few other spellings get tried out (Samuel Purchas uses Hanna, 1613, pg. 637; John Philips uses Hina, 1677, pg. 44) before henna becomes the standard spelling in the mid-18th century, and by the end of the 19th century "a cluster of camphire" had been replaced in Bible translations with "a cluster of henna blossoms" or something similar.

Linnaeus' entry for henna, Systema Naturae, 1767.
And what about henna’s Latin name? The scientific name Lawsonia was given to the henna plant by Linnaeus himself, in honour of Linnaeus’ friend Isaac Lawson, a Scottish botanist. 

Linnaeus distinguished two varieties: Lawsonia inermibus [‘Unarmed Lawsonia’] and Lawsonia spinosis [‘Thorny Lawsonia’]. L. inermibus was later changed to L. inermis, L. spinosis to L. spinosa, and two other types were added: L. alba, ‘white Lawsonia,’ and L. purpurea, ‘purple Lawsonia.’ However, botanists eventually agreed that there was only one species of henna, L. inermis, that took on different characteristics in different areas and at different stages.

Lawsone, the naphthoquinone molecule responsible for the dyeing properties of henna, was first isolated in 1862 by an Egyptian chemist named Abd-el-Aziz Herraouy, who originally called it ‘hennotannic acid’ (pg. 37).In 1920 its structure was clarified and renamed lawsone by Italian chemist Giuseppe Tommasi (1920, pg. 263).

All in all, I think we can all agree: henna, by any other name, stains just as strong. Do you know any more words for henna? Please add them in the comments!

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Polar Sling said...

Thank you for this post! I found it most interesting and I hope some of the Asian names and their information are posted in the comments.

Henna by Heather said...

This is fantastic! Thank you very much for this and all that you do.

I also look forward to seeing if anyone has any insights into the many Asian (and especially South Asian) words and their etymologies!