Blighty = Vilayati

I never understood why the British referred to their home country as “old Blighty.” These days the term is mainly used with self-depricating irony, but during its heyday it was said in earnest, to refer to a homeland dearly missed:

Vilayated not blighted

The term was more common in the later days of the British Raj… It is … commonly used as a term of endearment by the expatriate British community, or those on holiday to refer to home… During World War I, “Dear Old Blighty” was a common sentimental reference, suggesting a longing for home by soldiers in the trenches. [Link]

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What confused me about the term was that it implied that the motherland was a blight, which is an odd thing for homesick soldiers to admit. While I may have thought of the Raj as blighted, I didn’t think that the soldiers fighting for it did so, and I definitely didn’t think the term was sanctioned by the British authorities.

The confusion was soon cleared up by Wikipedia which tells me that the word “Blighty” has little to do with blight, it’s a false cognate. Instead, it is a desi loan word. Yes, All things come from India uncle strikes again – even the British term from home comes from the Hindustani word (borrowed from Arabic) for foreign:

Blighty is a British English slang term for Britain, deriving from the Hindustani word vilayati, meaning “foreign”, related to the Arabic word wilayat, meaning a kingdom or province.

According to World Wide Words, Sir Henry Yule and Arthur C Burnell explained in their Anglo-Indian dictionary, Hobson-Jobson, published in 1886, that the word came to be used, in British India, for several things the British had brought into the country, such as the tomato (bilayati baingan) and soda water, which was commonly called bilayati pani, or “foreign water”. [Link]

That’s right – instead of longing for a blighted homeland, these soldiers were longing for a foreign one. It’s as if they started to refer to themselves as “goray log,” appropriating an Indocentric term for other to refer to themselves. With so little discrimination, they’re just lucky they didn’t end up calling Mother England “Bhenjotistan”.

23 thoughts on “Blighty = Vilayati

  1. Already knew about this but I find it quite funny because the word ‘vilayti’ is said a lot by Punjabis and when you hear how we say it and how the original British soliders in India changed its prounciation to ‘blighty’ you can only imagine how difficult it must have been to understand them when they tried to actually speak Hindi / Punjabi.

  2. The British most likely popularised the use of tomato in the subcontinent, certainly K. T. Achaya thinks so.

    But the earliest transfer most likely took place along with potatoes, chilies, et al, via the Iberian connection established in Goa (aka Portugal’s Estado da India) by 1510.

  3. Anyway, since this about loan words, let’s note that ‘tomatl’ is not the only word that has been borrowed by Indian languages directly from the original Nahuatl. There’s also the ‘chicozapota’, a fruit which is known by the first half of the native word across the North of India, and the second half through much of the South.

  4. I never understood why the British referred to their home country as “old Blighty.”

    Me neither, but I stopped trying. After all, these are people that refer to the hood of a car as a bonnet

  5. It could easily have become “Firangistan.” And then they’d have called it Frengy, and would have sung anthems celebrating all things Frengy.

    Including, one supposes, “curries.”

  6. Me neither, but I stopped trying. After all, these are people that refer to the hood of a car as a bonnet

    My first reaction was “and the trunk of a car as dicky” but then I looked up the D word and apparently it’s strictly an Asian term.

  7. camille, yes.

    ‘chicozapota’ – so interesting that this word is split correctly down the line for general northern and southern use. i wonder how they decided which region took which part of the word? and is there an english word for it?

    as for tomatoes, i suppose it is one good thing to come out of the raj. i once had to give up tomatoes for 6 months – that was much harder than i had expected :)

    ennis – would not the maternal version of bhenjotistan have been more appropriate for mother england?

  8. but what fascinates me is the possibility that the British soldiers not only knew that bilayat meant foreign, but that they used the term with an added layer of irony. i’m thinking that it’s possible that they consciously appropriated the term to refer to Britain while they were in India, not only in the sense of Britain being foreign to India/ns (which would explain why they didn’t use an English word. using a Hindusatani word to refer to an English entity underscores the foreignness of England), but also foreign to themselves. i’m romanticising a bit here, but i think of people like Rudyard Kipling, a man who never fit in totally anywhere, but was most uncomfortable in England. if someone like him used the word “foreign” to refer to the place from which he came, the place to which he might never return, unpacking what he really means gets … complicated.

  9. several things the British had brought into the country, such as the tomato (bilayati baingan)”.

    So the British gave me tomatoes, and therefore the gift of chicken makhni – chalo, it’ll be one thing I’m not mad at them for. :)

  10. They brought tomatoes and took back the Kohinoor and the Star of India.

    good bargain at that. I bet the Kohinoor wouldn’t blend well in rasam.

  11. I knew that. Thanks for Bhenjotibad, Ennis

    Did y’all know how Hindi lessons for Brits worked? Examples: There was a brown crow!” –”There was a coal hoe!”

    When asked to appeal to her husband for clemency on behalf of Bahadur Shah Zafar, one popsie proudly told him, with suitable emphasis, “Kubeen Nai!”

  12. Among other misunderstood words, there’s also juggernaut. Also, speaking of tomatoes and mangling by the British, mulligatawny soup (bastardization of the Tamil “molaga thanni” or “chilli water”) is the worst insult you can throw at such a fantastic component of Tamil cuisine. Hypertree, good observation about the Kohinoor and Rasam. What about the stones in the dal though? If you’re going to get your teeth chipped, wouldn’t a diamond be preferable?

    And what about Indians using English? Yeh goodbye kya hai?

  13. Also, speaking of tomatoes and mangling by the British, mulligatawny soup (bastardization of the Tamil “molaga thanni” or “chilli water”) is the worst insult you can throw at such a fantastic component of Tamil cuisine.

    Sorry, that sentence lost something thanks to an incomplete edit by me. Mulligatawny soup was used to refer to rasam. And somebody needs to fix that most unapettizing Rasam photo on Wikipedia.

  14. but what fascinates me is the possibility that the British soldiers not only knew that bilayat meant foreign, but that they used the term with an added layer of irony. i’m thinking that it’s possible that they consciously appropriated the term to refer to Britain while they were in India, not only in the sense of Britain being foreign to India/ns (which would explain why they didn’t use an English word. using a Hindusatani word to refer to an English entity underscores the foreignness of England), but also foreign to themselves.

    I think you give them too much credit. Back then people didn’t live that long, and probably most of the British in India had been born in England. I doubt they saw themselves as more of brown sahibs than white ones. And in any case, the word was popular across the Raj, at which point the possibility of knowing irony ceases. It was also used in a semi-official capacity which would be weird. Why would the Army publish magazines for homesick soldiers in trenches that calls them foreigners? Nationalism tends to be far simpler than that.

  15. Most comments here have missed the point of the nuance and Fathima is not too far off the mark.

    It is the Indians themselves who referred to Imports as “Vilayati” or “Bilati” both of which were corrupted into Blighty by the English speakers.

    The English simply noticed that their homeland was referred to as “Balati” and adopted the phrase, whether they knew it meant ‘foreign’ or not is a moot point… at first they probably did not but for some reason they liked the sound of the word and adopted it to refer to their “homeland”…

    What is foreign to one person is simply another persons familiar territory - the real meaning wouldnt even have mattered to them… as they had created (by virtue of their own dialect) a new pronunciation and allocated a fresh and specific meaning.

    Happens all the time with progressive language, even today.