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My Web of Words – 11 – Punch


While making the connections in my last article between the words ‘table’, tabula and the game of tawleh, I remembered the custom in Lebanon and other countries of the Levant of calling the outcome of the dice in a ritualised language particular to the game.

Each player throws two small, ivory-coloured dice in turn. If these come up five and two, the players say banj dou; for six and one, they say shesh yek. This is Persian – a language which, in the main, players don’t speak and which they use only when playing tawleh. No one is supposed to depart from this tradition; if anyone in the village where I grew up had had the bad idea of calling the numbers in Arabic, French or English, he would have found himself the object of much jocosity; and purists - my uncles, for example – would have simply refused to play with him.

Everyone sticks to this ritual, which goes back at least to the time of the Ottomans, perhaps even earlier. Players call most numbers in Persian. In certain cases, you can switch between Persian and Turkish – a roll of five-four can be called either banj-johar (Persian) or besh-dort (Turkish); two-one can be either dou-yek or iki-bir. Only one roll – six-five – can be called in a mix of both languages, shesh-besh, the first word being Persian, the second Turkish. The two words were probably coupled because they share the same ending. In some countries – Tunisia and Israel, for example – the game of tawleh is actually known as shesh-besh.

I should point out that I have transcribed the numbers – the word banj in particular – in the Lebanese pronunciation1. Persian-speakers pronounce their word for ‘five’ as pandj, which is the source of the word ‘punch’, a cocktail made from five ingredients – usually water, alcohol, lemon, sugar and spices, though there are many variants.

From the Commedia dell’arte to the Afghan wars

Over the past three centuries, the word ‘punch’ has spread across the world thanks in part to its likeness to other English words that, though derived from entirely different sources, are written and pronounced the same way. The meanings of all these ‘punches’ have, in a way, closed ranks. There is the verb ‘to punch’, for example, and its noun, ‘punch’; there is the expression ‘punch line’, referring to the comic drop of an article or joke. These ‘punches’ come from the old French ponchon, which gave modern French its word for awl, poinçon. ‘Punch’ is also the short form of Punchinello, the English name for the iconic character from the Commedia dell’arte known in Italian as Pulcinella and in French, Polichinelle. The famous satirical magazine Punch, founded in 1841, was named after him.

I’m giving all these homonyms because they all helped the word ‘punch’ flourish. Just like humans, words are born, die, make fortunes or go broke; they change their appearance or vocation according to circumstance; they emigrate to distant lands and sometimes return so transformed that they’re hardly recognisable - which is what I find so delightful about them.

Regarding the drink itself, its name could well come from the Hindi word panch, or else directly from the Persian, since Hindi and Persian are close relatives. Whatever the case, the words for the numeral ’5′ in most Indo-European languages are derived from the same source. The kinship of some of these with pandj is easy to see, for example the Greek pente, which led to composites such as ‘pentagon’. In others, the link is much less obvious, for example the French cinq, English ‘five’, or the Scandinavians’ fem. Linguists, however, tell us that the original name for the numeral in the hypothetical Indo-European mother language – supposedly spoken some six or seven thousand years ago - was pengke, and that each ethnic group transformed this in its own way, the Celts into pemp, the Germanic tribes into fimf, the Latins into quinque, etc.

Going back to the Indo-Iranian word for this numeral, we find it not only in the name of the cocktail, but in several toponyms as well. The Punjab, for example, a territory divided between India and Pakistan, is a contraction of panch-ab, meaning ‘five waters’ – a concise way of saying ‘the land of five rivers’. In the same part of Asia is located the Panjshir valley,  where Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated on the 9th of September 2001. The name pandj-shir means ‘five lions’ in Persian. This etymology explains, at least in part, why the famous Afghan commander was dubbed ‘the lion of Panjshir’.

  1. AUTHOR’S NOTE: Because the Persian consonant ‘p’ doesn’t exist in Arabic, it is generally transformed into ‘b’. []

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