Word of the Day: Termagant

Just as I had convinced myself that I knew everything, The Week proved me wrong. I like to read the “what to watch” column since I rarely watch television. In it, was the description of an upcoming A&E mystery wherein “a fed up husband finally plans to get rid of his termagant wife”. termagant? A dictionary definition was summoned. “A quarrelsome, scolding woman; a shrew. From Middle English Termagaunt, imaginary Muslim deity portrayed as a violent and overbearing character in medieval mystery plays”. That made me get out of the bath. What Muslim deity’s name could be bastardized as termagant? As far as I knew, Allah and al-Rahman were the only names to have cropped over into medieval European imagination. I was obviously very uninformed.

OED had more info:

1. (with capital T.) Name of an imaginary deity held in mediÊval Christendom to be worshipped by Muslims: in the mystery plays represented as a violent overbearing personage. (Cf. MAHOUND 1.) Obs. or arch.

In Lay. applied to gods of the Romans and heathen Saxons.

c1205 LAY. 5353 For {ygh}if hit wulled Teruagant {th}e us [is] oure god of {th}isse lond [Rome]. Ibid. 16427 {Th}e he{edh}ene..cleopeden ëUre godd Teruagant! whi trukest {th}u us an hond?í c1290 S. Eng. Leg. I. 468/205 Ne bilieuez nou{ygh}ht opon Mahun, ne on teruagaunt, [h]is fere. 1303 R. BRUNNE Handl. Synne 197 {Th}e sarysyne to hys god {ygh}ede, And askede cunseyl… {Th}an answered hys termagaunt. a1400 Octouian 919 The Sowdan, that left [= believed] yn Teruagaunt. 1570 FOXE A. & M. (ed. 2) 680/2 If he had made hym [Ld. Cobham] some Termagant or Mahounde out of Babilonia. 1597 BP. HALL Sat. I. i. 4 Nor fright the Reader with the Pagan vaunt Of mightie Mahound, and great Termagaunt. 1602 SHAKES. Ham. III. ii. 15, I could haue such a Fellow whipt for o’redoing Termagant: it out-Herod’s Herod. 1637 HEYWOOD Royall King II. ii, I’le march where my Captaine leads, wer’t into the Presence of the great Termagaunt. 1825 SCOTT Talism. iii, Down with Mahound, Termagaunt, and all their adherents.

Now, Mahound made sense, but Termagant is still way weird. I turned next to the internets. More detail, but unsatisfactory. Tir-magian is just not feasable as an etymology. But, there was the clue that I had been looking for. Chanson de Roland.

It’s been a while since I read it. Luckily, the full text is all over the internets. The epic was composed in early 12th century about Charlemagne’s victory against the Saracens. In it, the Muslims are given a trinity to worship: Mahom, Tervagan and Apollin. The first and last are, clearly, Muhammad and Apollo. But Tervagan is not clear at all. The text reads: La Lei I Fut Mahum E Tervagan. James Bellamy’s Arabic Names in the Chanson de Roland has a list of possiblities for Tervagan: “from Diana Trivia, the sister of Apollo, Tarvos Trigaranus (Bull with three cranes, a Celtic deity), Tarvos Ogam (more Celtic gods), Trismegistus (Hermes), Atargatis, Triglav (a Saxon god), Thor-Wotan, terra vagans, ter vagari, Tarbaqan (Turco-Mongolian evil being)” etc. Except, none of these are, as Bellamy points out, coming from Arabic roots.

Bellamy writes that very few scholars have looked to Arabic to find this etymology. The leading possibilities were: P. Cassanova’s ta-rabbi-l-ka’bati [by the Lord of Ka’aba. umm. no.] and Ch. Pellat’s ar-ragim [the stoned. def. no.]. In his own reading, Bellamy starts with the hypothesis that Tervagan and Apollo are:

distorted names of persons closely associated with the prophet. It is surely reasonable to assume that Saracen gods ought to have Saracen names, and that since Mahom was one of the ‘trinity,’ the others could well be men who had some close connection with him.1

By swapping the T for a B, the r for a n and the v for a ‘ayn: BnAffan i.e. ‘Uthman b. ‘Affan. Similarly, Apollo is Abu Bakr. Bellamy says that the two early Caliphs would have been familiar to the early Medieval scribes and normal scribal foolishness occured.

I almost buy it. But not quite. Bellamy transliterates TRVGAN into arabic BRWFAN. Orthographically, I may pick some bones about the r/n and g/f. But, I don’t really have a clear alternative to offer. More broadly, why would companions who, in whatever rendition comes to Europe, were clearly followers of Muhammad be raised up as deities? Al-lah is significantly missing. The main issue is Bellamy’s contention that the ‘trinity’ would have to be Muhammad’s companions. If Muhammad was a deity, it seems odd that the obvious deity is not part of the trinity.

Any Arabists want to jump in?


1. James A. Bellamy. “Arabic Names in the Chanson De Roland: Saracen Gods, Frankish Swords, Roland’s Horse, and the Olifant” in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 107, No. 2. (Apr. – Jun., 1987), pp. 267-277.

unrelated:Laura K. Krishna is a Plagiarist: You seriously need to read the post. And, I URGE you to wade through the comments.

Bangalore High

We were seniors or juniors, I cannot remember. The sun had baked the earth of Lahore into clay even in early March. I was a new convert to cricket. Having been raised on the mean streets of Doha, the game was as foreign to me as Gulli-Danda [also a source of shame]. However, in any high school of Lahore, one had no choice but to embrace, live, and breath cricket. The alternative was severe mocking, taunting and social ostracization. Naturally, I threw myself headlong into the crazy game.

By 1987, I had some valued teachers and a severe case of idolation of Imran Khan. Who didn’t?. Hours were spent dissecting his bowling, emulating his runup and bowling motion, affecting the look. It was in 1987 that Pakistan toured India for a 5 Test series, part of Zia’s cricket diplomacy. We all knew that Imran Khan would win it for us – finally take revenge for 1971 [umm. ok, no.]. The first four matches were draws, but our hope never wavered.

Every test day would be spent with the radio/TV, at the expense of school, exams, chores. Amma would periodically hurl spoons and abuses but not one over would be missed. Immediately after the last ball of the day, a meeting would convene on Jorey Pull Cricket Ground – the abandoned Girl’s school building where we played tape-ball. Every ball, every at-bat was discussed at length. Imran’s genius was attested. Gavaskar’s vileness was condemned. Kapil’s incomprehensible effectiveness was lamented. Draw after draw after draw after draw.

March 13-17, 1987 was the final test of the series at Bangalore. Much more than that, it was also the final test for Sunil Gavaskar. Imran’s retirement was looming after the upcoming World Cup. This was it – their final showdown. The stage was set for the only chance for Pakistan to win on Indian soil. Quizzically, Imran had called in this really odd left-arm off-spinner, Iqbal Qasim, and dropped Abdul Qadir. There was a great deal of hand-wringing about the decision in public. Yes, Abdul Qadir had had his ass kicked in the past four tests but he was still the greatest leg-spinner. How can you drop someone like him? The bangalore pitch was like a crater from what we could hear. A leg spinner would be an immense advantage. Dare we doubt you, Imran?

Day 1. Rameez Raja failed again. Along with whomever the hell they had. In fact, Maninder Singh cleaned the house with 7 for 27 and Pakistan scored a measely 116. The darkest of nights had begun for the nation of Pakistan and the group of teenagers in Lahore Cantt. But the doughy Iqbal Qasim and the unflappable Tauseef Ahmed [whom I met and played with in subsequent years] cleaned out the Indian lineup with 5 apiece. Pakistan, now, stepped back to the plate wicket [crap, I almost mixed my sports metaphors]. Rameez Raja almost produced and Imran sat on the pitch for 140 minutes to give their team a “decent” lead. India needed only 221 to win with two entire days left to play.

Day 4. We had finals or something. Stuck in chemistry class. Asif way in the back had one tiny AM radio with a broken headphone he had taped to the inside of his cap. Every over, every 4, and every OUT had a pre-determined tap or signal. There was a deafening silence in the class – all of our ears attuned to Asif’s pencil, pad and thumb. When the fourth wicket fell, I raised my hand in class. “Feeling queasy, sir.” He stared daggers at me. I held his gaze. “OK”. I ran out. Under the sole neem tree, was a group of escapees, hunched over the radio, yelling back at Omar Kureishi*. I never went back to class. The next day, I spend the whole day paying for it.

The spinners won us the Test and the series. By 16 runs. At one end, stood the great Gavaskar watching his teammates go down one by one in slow succession to the off-spinners. After five and a half hours on the crease, he went down on 96. His last inning.

I can recall that I didn’t have a voice for days after. Vocal cords ripped sore from the screams. That day of cricket has never been topped in my memories. It became a mythic match. Imran Khan a demigod. Such was that unbridled joy in the game. In the years following, I played a lot of cricket. Lots of good cricket. I met many of the members of the cricket squad. I only remember talking to them about the ’87 test series. There is another aspect to that history that will have to wait for another post.

All that came back after following the strikingly similar win by Pakistan at the same venue. In fact, I was rather blasÈ about this win – I kept smiling from the ’87 memories.

*: With shock and sadness, I just learned that Omar Kureishi passed on to the fair greens in the sky. A nice obit here. He was the voice of cricket for all of us. May he rest in peace.

Noxious Reed

Rex Reed writes film reviews for the NY Observer. He wrote a short review for Park Chan-Wook’s Old Boy. Damn thing is SERIOUSLY offensive to me. I am half-korean [on my dad’s side]. All Pakistanis are. It is one of those nationalist pipe-dreams. Legend goes that under Ayub’s dictatorship, we were so advanced that the South Koreans came over to take notes on how to be the bestest little developing nation. Of course, they turned around and became the bestest nation and, here we sit, with a pipe and a dream. But, I digress. This is what Mr. Reed wrote:

For sewage in a cocktail shaker, there is Oldboy, a noxious helping of Korean Grand Guignol as pointless as it is shocking. What else can you expect from a nation weaned on kimchi, a mixture of raw garlic and cabbage buried underground until it rots, dug up from the grave and then served in earthenware pots sold at the Seoul airport as souvenirs? Directed by Chan-wook Park, a film-festival ìcomerî in this nation of emerging cinematic schlock…

What else can you expect from a nation? How is that appropriate? If he didn’t like the movie, say that. Don’t pen racial stereotypes of a nation. I doubt he started his review of Passion with “what else can you expect from a nation weaned on tobbaccer-chew and Dr. Pepper…”. I am almost peeved enough to drop him an email. But he may be out shopping.

unrelated: I will post my trip pics tomorrow. Or later. Also stay tuned for my thoughts on becoming a card-carrying American Orientalist.

unrelated 2: Seriously?.

Sunday Reading for Nationalists

I am back, gentle readers. While the image of me running naked down the streets of Ohio gave glee to some, I must defend my honor by declaring that farangi’s orientalist fantasies are terribly out of date. He forgot to put a writhing python around my neck. Still, I want to thank him for taking time away from the NASCAR de-caling of his Ford F10 pickup truck to post on CM. Also, banjos. Also, pigs squealing. See, when you know someone as long as I have known farangi, insults are much easier to imagine and convey.

A week without the internets was quite nice, I must say. But, it has left a horrible backlog of things to read, write and respond to. Which is why God made Sundays.

  • Every child in Pakistan knows Pressler – the maligned author of the amendment banning aid and sale to Pakistan. Especially, of those sexy F16s. Every child in Pakistan also has a poster of those F16s on their cabinet drawers. The pride of the nation. The bounced check. Ok, maybe not anymore but 15 years ago they did. Still, I was quite taken aback by what the bushites did. They stoked the arms race between India and Pakistan. I guess it is good news for some. Rice says it is all “to solidify and extend relations with both India and Pakistan at a time when we have good relations with both of them”. Word Life.
  • I do not know why no one excepts the NYT seems to care about the prisoner abuse/death stories. They are just not as compelling as whatever happens in Florida. Paging Karen Hughes.
  • I am seriously thinking of applying for some jobs in UK next year. Keep meaning to email the great Sharon Howard. This Observer report on hate crimes is kinda, um, worrisome: “Jews, Muslims and Gypsies tell the CRE that they are under siege in Britain”.
  • Staying across the pond. If the Left thinks we have problems here, the LRB asks: What happened?. David Blunkett comes in for some examination [“The Home Office is the great Heart of Darkness in British government”]. The article also has the best. footnote. ever.
  • Not to be left behind, the TLS tackles American Nationalism – a review of Anton Lieven’s America Right or Wrong. Doesn’t seem anything fresh but worth a peek.
  • In the Boston Globe they profile a new entry into the Middle East Centers: Brandeis University. Shai Feldman, the new director of the new center, likes to talk smack.
  • Two literary notes: Margaret Atwood, who knows a bit about utopias and dystopias, reviews Bryher’s Visa for Avalon in the NY Review of Books. It is a great read. And in the NYT, on translated fiction and histories contained within them.
  • Finally, I have fond memories of “their bari eid” Easter in Pakistan. Happy Easter to all readers.