In dengue fever you go ‘dinga’

Dengue is derived from "dinga" in Swahili. In Punjabi, ‘dinga’ means twisted.

Khaled Ahmed September 27, 2011

Punjab is in the grip of dengue fever, spread through the bite of a speckled mosquito. Thousands are hospitalised and scores have died, including a secretary of the Punjab government. Dr Faisal Sultan of Shaukat Khanum Hospital says spraying is of no use against the dengue mosquito and there is no vaccine that can prevent the bite from having effect. Dengue fever is curable if diagnosed in time.

Politicians have been attacking one another over dengue, especially ex-chief minister Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi who says Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif should resign. Law Minister Rana Sanaullah says Pervaiz Elahi is himself like a dengue mosquito attacking furtively and sucking the blood of the people.

The internet says the word ‘dengue’ came from Kenya. The word is identified as Swahili, but it is a mystery how it got to be written as dengue in Spanish; meaning both, the fever and the attitude of stiffness associated with snobs. In French, ‘dingue’ means totally crazy. Are all these versions related?

The Swahili phrase describing the fever says: ‘Ka-dinga pepo’. Then word experts go astray, connecting dinga to Spanish dengue. They opine that slaves in the West Indies having contracted dengue, were said to have the posture and gait of a dandy and the disease was known as dandy fever. The sense is that of stiffness when the body goes twisted.

I have one source that gives the kind of answer I wanted. My extremely competent Klein’s Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language says the word comes from Swahili ‘dinga’, meaning ‘twisted’. Later, it was shaped by the form of the Spanish word dengue for ‘prudery’. In the West Indies, dengue fever was interestingly changed to dandy fever!

Now, Swahili is a mixture of Arabic and other native languages or the ones brought in by foreigners, including those from India. Swahili itself contains the Arabic word in it for coast, sahil. The old freedom movement in the region called uhuru, in Swahili, was actually from the Arabic word hur (freedom) which was also present in the Jewish name Ben Hur, made famous by a Hollywood movie. One of the dangerous political movements in Pakistan imported from London is Hizbut Tahrir, which is from the same root: “hrr”.

A Punjabi will immediately recognise the Swahili word for twisted as his own. In Punjabi, ‘dinga’ is twisted. In Hindi there is a derived meaning: ‘dingar meaning a ‘wicked man’ and a ‘show-off’. It also means a ‘fat man’. The city called Dinga Singh might mean ‘stiff and proud man’. Swahili has many Punjabi words borrowed from the indentured labour taken to Kenya by the Brits. For instance chapati and dukani (shop) are Swahili words among many that the Indians spread around.

Now we come to the association of pride with the state of being twisted or physically crooked. A patient of dengue fever is stiffened by the pain in his joints, but a man who is not ill but still adopts a posture of pride is ‘dinga’ or ‘binga’. In Urdu, the word that comes close to these Punjabi versions is ‘banka’, in fact a clear derivative of ‘binga’.

When Urdu wants to express the sense of twistedness it writes baka in ‘baal baka hona but also ‘banka’ in terha-banka. In the sense of pride and exaggerated exhibitionism, the word was applied to the ‘banka’ youths of Delhi in the late Mughal period. They did all sorts of things to appear macho but one thing they all did in common: they walked around stiff and twisted. The word has a positive meaning too in the Urdu word: ‘bank-pan’, simple attraction.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 28th, 2011.


Yasir Imran | 9 years ago | Reply

I thought you were talking about my city 'Dinga' that is located in Distt Gujrat. Thanks for the article BTW

Yasser Nomann | 9 years ago | Reply

Bravo Khaled sahib! What a marvelous article it is. I am following your columns since the days you used to contribute Word for Word in DT, Lahore. This piece of yours is a treat for the readers having linguistic relish. Thank you.

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