The World in So Many Words:
A Country-by-Country Tour of Words That Have
Shaped Our Language
by Allan Metcalf
Indexed by word, country of origin, and language of origin
Words from languages familiar, obscure, and extinct
Catamaran from Tamil
The English adventurer and pirate William Dampier, traveling around the world in the 1690s in search of business opportunities, once found himself on the southeastern coast of India, in Tamil province on the Bay of Bengal. He was the first to write in English about a kind of vessel he observed there. It was little more than a raft made of logs. "On the coast of Coromandel," he wrote in 1697, "they call them Catamarans. These are but one Log, or two, sometimes of a sort of light Wood ... so small, that they carry but one Man, whose legs and breech are always in the Water."
The name came from the Tamil language of India. But the catamaran as we know it came from a different part of the world, the South Pacific. English visitors applied the Tamil name catamaran to the swift, stable sail and paddle boats made out of two widely separated logs and used by Polynesian natives to get from one island to another.
It was too good an idea to leave to the Polynesians. In the 1870s an American, Nathanael Herreshoff, began to build catamaran boats to his own design. The speed and stability of these catamarans soon made them popular pleasure craft in America.
In the twentieth century, the catamaran inspired an even more popular sailboat. A Southern California maker of surfboards, Hobie Alter, came up with the idea for "a small catamaran that you could easily take out into the water and sail and take back in." In 1967 he produced the first 250-pound Hobie Cat 14, and two years later the larger and even more successful Hobie 16. That boat remains in production, with more than 100,000 made in the past three decades.
Tamil is spoken by more than sixty million people in southern India. It is the source of pariah, first recorded in English in 1613, more emphatic than its synonym outcast. About a dozen other Tamil words have found their way into English, including cheroot (1679), curry (1681), the soup mulligatawny (1784), and the perfume patchouli (1845).