WORD For word: ‘Shame’ of many nations
‘Shame’ is very close to Urdu ‘sharm’ it seems that the ‘r’ has dropped somewhere on the way. This is proved by Russian ‘sram’ and, more clearly, by English ‘harm’. The fact is that it is the same word. But is ‘sharm’ really negative? In all language it seems to have begun as ‘honour’ before
taking on the negative meaning
Have you ever wondered why English shame and Urdu sharm sound more or less the same? Shame is Germanic and is found in German scham, Dutch schaam, and Swedish and Danish skam. Because fraud produces a sense of shame, English sham is related to it. Since Germanic ‘sh’ sound is also ‘sk’ sound, modern English scam is a changed form of sham. In Urdu, sharm is common and has passed on to Hindi where lajja already exists. But the word is Persian with its related formations like baysharm (shameless).
There is also an Arabic sharam which means splitting. A gulf therefore can be called sharam. Nostril, with its split in the middle of the nose, too can be thus named. Thus Sharam al-Sheikh is a gulf (a splitting of the coast) which can also be understood as Nostril of the Sheikh. Intezar Hussain in one of his stories played on the word sharm by mixing its Persian and Arabic meanings.
That the word shame is Indo-European is proved by the fact that Russian and other Slavic languages too have the word sram meaning the same. But Slavic sram has the additional meaning of grief and damage, which the dictionaries link with Germanic harm. English dictionaries say harm is not clear in its etymology but recognise its Russian linkage with shame. The word damage is used for shame in French domage. One can say that Urdu sharm and English harm are linked.
However, the French use the word pudeur for shame. Its Latin root is pudor and it appears in English impudent (without shame) and pudenda (female sex organ). The connection between shame and private parts is also evident in Persian. In Urdu we use sharmgah for private parts. But it could be the other way around too. The word puda (close to its Punjabi variant) could be the original name for the female sex organ, from which the sense of shame could be derived. For instance, testament and testify have been derived from testis, the Latin word for testicles.
Hindi sharm is Sanskrit meaning luck and good fortune. Thus the name sharma and feminine sharmin would mean lucky. (Some Muslim girls carrying the name sharmin have actually taken a Hindu name.) It would be wrong to give the meaning of shy to Hindi name sharmila whose meaning should be connected to the earlier meaning of luck and auspiciousness. Some Muslims have adopted this name but it remains Hindi in its origin. In Urdu, the correct form would be sharmili.
Shame is taken to mean something negative, but in Urdu sharm is actually honour. It is only when someone loses shame that he becomes dishonoured. The negative meaning is developed from common usage of ‘feeling sharm’ or feeling the sense of (lost) honour. Urdu sharminda is negative and also means unclothed as in sharminda-e-maani (revealing the real meaning). In French, the word for negative shame is honte, but that too comes from honeur (honour). In English shameless would indicate that shame itself is not negative.
In Arabic the word haya is shame, and honour is derived from it. Arabic etymology traces it from hayy (to expand or contract). One name of Allah is Hayy (He who gives life). One sense is that whatever contracts to the touch is alive. Arabic hayat is life but hayyat is snake because of its movement in contractions. When you feel shame your muscles contract. In Hebrew khoot means muscle, but the word for shameless is khootspah. This has come into English as chutzpah meaning a kind of brashness akin to courage.
Lajja (shame) in Sanskrit seems to be cognate with lag (touch). This is speculative. It is possible that the feeling of shame was a muscular reaction to touching. English expression touching (causing emotion), carries the same implication. The plant Touch-Me-Not is called lajawanti. It is quite possible that Sanskrit got its word for shame from physical sensation, just like Arabic.
Khaled Ahmed’s Word for Word will appear every Sunday