Wednesday, 14 October 2009


I just found out that a few months ago New Delhi's court decriminalized homosexuality. In honour of this, the word today is hijra, a term for a transvestite who is considered neither male nor female.

From the OED, I see that Hindi हिजड़ा hijaṛā "eunuch, impotent man" is perhaps borrowed (via Marathi हिजडा hijaḍā and Oriya ହିଜଡ଼ hijaṛa) from Kannada ಹೆಣ್ಣಿಗ heṇṇiga "impotent man, coward", ultimately from Tamil பெண்டன் peṇṭaṉ "hermaphrodite, eunuch". This is the masculine form of பெண்டு peṇṭu "woman".

Wikipedia notes (there is no citation) that Kannada initial h- is a reflex of earlier p-. It seems likely that the Kannada and Tamil words are both derived from the same proto-form.

No relation to Arabic هِجْرَة hijra, the migration of Muhammed to Medina.

Hijras are men who sacrifice their genitalia to a goddess in return for the power to confer fertility on newlyweds and newborn children, a ritual role they are respected for, at the same time as they are stigmatized for their ambiguous sexuality.
- Gayatri Reddy, With respect to sex: negotiating hijra identity in South India

Portraits of hijras.


Adam Roberts said...

Any relation to 'kedgeree' ('khichri' in Hindi, according to my Hobson-Jobson), which is after all a kind of mixture or mess of foodstuffs cooked together?

goofy said...

I looked up "kedgeree" a while ago, and all I could find it that it came from Sanskrit for "dish of rice and sesamum". It's probably not related. Whether I can trace kedgeree to another English word remains to be seen.

Glen Gordon said...

It's still a sad social commentary that hijra would come from a word meaning 'coward'. The real cowards are the ones who are so psychotically obsessed with interfering in other people's personal identity. I never understood these sorts, always imposing their morals on things that have absolutely nothing to do with them. (... Or maybe they do? Sssssshhhhh! I know something that you don't know about The Crying Game. Sing it loud, Georgey. Lol.)

On a related note, I wrote in 2007 about Babylonian sexuality and found some of their equivalents for hijra, like kurgarrû.