Origin of the word ' Camphor '

Camphor, the popular waxy, aromatic solid, is widely used across India during poojas for its divine properties of purifying the space and promoting positive energies. Plus, it’s the evergreen household remedy for many conditions and problems, including dandruff, inflammation, cold, and many more. 

Camphor has been used in India since the Vedic times, and it is even mentioned in our ancient scriptures. What’s more, historians have even found the use of camphor across various other places, including ancient Greece, Egypt, and Southeast Asia. 

Camphor Etymology

Given the wide prevalence of camphor, it has also gotten many interesting names worldwide; these names allow us to wonder at its rich history. So, without further ado, here are the various camphor translations in different languages and how they speak camphor’s history.

Camphor in Asia

The first camphor translations you must know are kapur Barus in Malay, and kapuram in Sanskrit. These two names are so intertwined that it is difficult for historians to conclude which name came first in the camphor etymology.

In ancient times, the Indian kingdoms and the port city of Barus, located on the shores of Sumatra, traded heavily in camphor since it was abundant near Barus. So, the widely accepted theory is that the word kapuram (Sanskrit) travelled to Barus, where it was translated into kapur Barus, which means the chalk of Barus. The name kapur Barus is still in use in modern-day Indonesia.

In the Indian subcontinent, it received various other names, too. For example, it was known as kapura in Gujarati, Marathi, and Punjabi; karpura in Bengali; karppura in Malayalam; and karpuram in Tamil. 

Apart from the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, camphor was also widely used in China and Japan, where it was known as zhangnao and shono respectively. In fact, in China, it was a crucial ingredient in traditional ice creams!

This is the origin of the word camphor as we know it, so what happened after this? The word travelled to Europe.

Camphor in the Middle East and Europe

From Barus and ancient India, camphor etymology takes us to the Middle East, where the name transformed into kafur in Arabic. In the Middle East, camphor was most often used as a fragrance, and hence, it has a special place in the history of perfumes (attars).

From the Middle East, camphor further travelled to Europe, translated into camfora in Latin. From camfora, it became known as camphre in French, and then eventually camphor in English, as we know it today.

In Europe, camphor was widely used as an ingredient in sweets along with being used as a medicinal product. Perhaps the most popular of its medicinal uses was that it was used as a fumigant during the Black Death in Europe, and it helped to fight the pandemic at the time. 

It also travelled to other countries in Europe, where it was known by different names; for example, canfora in Italian, kampfer in German, and alcanfor in Spanish.

Beginning as kapuram and kapur Barus in ancient India and Southeast Asia, camphor travelled around the world, and its name got influenced by various languages along the way. So, while camphor is an English word, it has its origin in Sanskrit. This camphor etymology of its name highlights camphor’s rich history and how it has influenced the world, including medicine, culture, cuisine, and religions!

Stay tuned to the House of Mangalam blog to know more about the rich history of camphor

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