The World of Books

The World of Books

Pyjamas are back in the news again. The reports that a welfare office in Damastown in north Dublin had posted a notice that its clients coming in for interviews were not to wear pyjamas aroused great comment, even though the topic had been well aired in the media when Maya Derrington’s street-smart film Pyjama Girls was released last year.

These young women use pyjamas as a form of leisure wear, a conscious fashion statement. Others see them merely as nightwear used as daywear — and at the very least inappropriate wear for some occasions. This, to my mind, suggests the sort of social anxieties about which the late Catholic anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote of in her important study of social fears and attitudes, Purity and Danger.

As garments they are not, of course, indecent. They are merely ‘improper’, a far more slippery term in these days when men have abandoned wearing ties to work, and it would be a foolish boss who would comment on anything worn by his female staff.

But what exactly, from an historical point of view (which is largely the way this column looks at the world), are pyjamas? Here we enter a different realm, far removed for the nice social distinctions of the Dublin townships.

The word comes from the Hindu word pae-jama for leg-clothing. They were originally the loose trousers tied around the waist that were worn by various people in India, by women of different classes and castes, by Sikh men, and by most Muslims of both sexes. (Akin to what would now perhaps be called here ‘harem trousers’).

Pyjamas were adopted from the Muslims by the Portuguese and British in India as deshabille and only much later as a form of nightwear. It became a light and airy flannel garment then worn over the whole of India.

The mode was imported to Britain in due course. In the 1860s, a tailor in London even offered them with feet sewn in to make them yet more comfortable. Later still, in the 1930s, they evolved into the ultra-fashionable ‘beach-pyjamas’.

So really our pyjama girls, who are held in so much disdain, have merely adopted not just an Indian custom, but a once high fashion garment. I doubt if any of them are actually Muslims — though one cannot be sure of that these days, for many young Irish women have converted to that faith.

Antagonism to them, and what they wear, now takes on another aspect, not so much of distaste, as of pure prejudice, perhaps with racial undertones. Would such a notice have been thought of if the pae-jama wearers were, say, Sikh men?

Of course, pyjamas are not the only word and concepts imported from the cultures of India: shampoo, bungalow, guru, pundit, that once common Dublin expression ‘to take a dekko’, are others. (‘Curry’, oddly enough, has a much older English medieval origin.)

Irish soldiers in Asia and the Middle East (of whom over the centuries there must have been millions) brought home the words they had got used to using ‘out there’.

I was surprised recently, reading Edward Lane’s Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, published in 1835, to discover that even such a familiar word as ‘booze’ comes from the Egyptian for alcoholic drink. Alcohol itself is pure Arabic. Our common word ‘fellah’, I suspect, comes not from ‘fellow’ in English, but from ‘fellaheen’, the Egyptian words for a common labourer.

Having readily adopted the words and customs of Asia in the past, these days we should be well prepared to remain unsurprised by and welcome those of modern Asia, whether Hindu, Muslim or Sikh, as part of the lifestyle of the new Irish.

I suspect that in the years to come many more words will come into our everyday language from such sources, as the economic power of India and China and the Arab oil states increases, and that of the USA, the prime source of so many new words and expressions in the last century, declines.

Some readers may think this is all bosh. But then they ought to be aware that ‘bosh’, meaning nonsense, actually comes from the Turkish word for ’empty, vain, useless, void of sense or meaning’.

The word has been current in these islands since the appearance of James Morier’s once celebrated novel of Persian life, The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan, published in 1824. And Morier, the son of the British consul at Smyrna (now Ismir in Turkey), who later worked in the British legation at the Court of Persia, knew exactly what he was talking about.

This is another instance of how the origin and history of a word can cast a flood of light on modern problems and prejudices.