This article first appeared in Asian Global Impact http://www.agimag.co.uk/ (Issue 07: May/June 2013) in the column “Asian Verbal Impact”.
If I asked you to list the food products in your kitchen with Asian names, I doubt sugar would spring to mind. And why should it? Sugar has been a bona fide English word since the thirteenth century and long since integral to British cuisine. Wealthy Tudors were notorious across Europe for their rotten teeth, and from the seventeenth century onwards sugarcane cultivation was a central feature of European colonialism in the Americas. Today, roughly a quarter of the world’s sugar is produced in Brazil.
Probing back into the word’s origins we start in disarmingly familiar territory. It is generally agreed that sugar derives from either the French sucre or a related Venetian term. Venice, in any case, was at the heart of European sugar production in the late Middle Ages, sourcing cane from plantations in Cyprus and Crete to fuel a love affair that had taken off with the Crusaders who brought sugar back as a souvenir from the Holy Land. Naturally they adopted its Arabic name, sukkar, which as al sukkar travelled into Spanish as azúcar.
Both the name sukkar and the method of turning sugarcane juice to granulated crystals came to the Arab world from the Persians. They in turn got their shakkar (probably in the 6th Century AD) from India where cane had been grown for centuries, although the plant is thought to have originated in Papua New Guinea. The ultimate parent word was the Sanskrit sarkara which originally referred to any gritty substance before taking on sweeter connotations. Outsiders, such as Alexander the Great, were more poetic in their appreciation and references to “honey without bees” and “honey-bearing reeds” can be found in contemporary travellers’ accounts. Indeed, the Macedonian army brought sugarcane back from the banks of the Indus in the 4th Century BC, and for 1,500 years sugar, Hellenised as sakharon, remained a little-known commodity restricted to the wealthy. Via the Latin saccharum the word lives on in English as saccharine (which has been used to refer to something cloying since the 19th century) and the artificial sweetener Saccharin.
Sarkara also passed into the South Indian language Malayalam as chakkara which ultimately mutated into the Anglo-Indian jaggery, an unrefined form of cane sugar consumed widely across Asia, Africa and Latin America. In some parts of India the word was less durable, and the modern Hindi name for granulated sugar is actually chini, meaning “Chinese” (a strange misnomer, since sugar almost certainly travelled from India to China rather than vice-versa), while sugar candy is called misri (“Egyptian”) in reference to Egypt’s monopoly over production in the Middle Ages. Elsewhere, the reach of Sanskrit has been impressive, and you can enjoy sheqer in Albania, siwgr in Wales and saaxarax in the Aleutian Islands. The awkward fact that in Chinese sugar is called tang, we’ll leave for another time…
Disclaimer: while the above is based on well-established theories of etymology, it should be noted that alternative theories exist for a number of the word origins described.