'Tis the season!
We all know the story of the three Magi bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus. In this post, I'll write about the two "m" words of the story, "magi" and "myrrh", touching briefly on "magi", but going into a bit more detail on "myrrh". I'll leave it to others to talk about gold and frankincense, should they so desire, and will turn to the mummies toward the end of the post.
If you want to know how "magi" is pronounced in English, go to John Wells's phonetic blog (12/18/09), "Magic!"
It is said that the magi came to Bethlehem "from the east". That makes sense, since the name "magi" is derived from an Iranian word, for which see:
Mair, Victor H. (1990), "Old Sinitic *Myag, Old Persian Maguš and English Magician", Early China 15: 27–47.
Available on JSTOR here.
If you are unable to access JSTOR, you can read a summary of key points of the article here.
In the Early China article, I show how the mages were in East Asia already by the late 2nd millennium BC, so in that case we would say that they came "from the west".
One of the things that the Iranians brought with them when they came to East Asia was myrrh, although the first evidence we have for that is much later — around the 5th c. AD — than the evidence for the magi themselves. See the learned discussion in Berthold Laufer, Sino-Iranica: Chinese Contributions to the History of Civilization in Ancient Iran (Chicago 1919), pp. 460-462.
The overland route by which myrrh reached East Asia is being studied by scholars of traditional Chinese medicine.
The Chinese word for myrrh is a transcription, 没 or 末, both or which are pronounced mò in Modern Standard Mandarin. These two characters have been chosen purely for their sound; the choice has nothing whatsoever to do with their meaning, respectively "not; un-; drown; sink; die; disappear" and "end; last / latter part; final stage; tip".
Laufer, p. 461:
The former Chinese character answers to ancient *mut or *mur; the latter to *mwat, mwar, or mar. The former no doubt represents attempts at reproducing the Semito-Persian name, — Hebrew mōr, Aramaic murā, Arabic murr, Persian mor….
These two characters, 没 and 末, are combined with the morpheme for "medicine; drug; remedy; cure", yào 藥 (simplified 药), to form the disyllabic Sinitic term for "myrrh":
mòyào 没藥 536,000 ghits (a few of these occurrences mean "there is no medicine", etc., but the vast majority refer to "myrrh")
mòyào 末藥 108,000 ghits (many of these occurrences mean "ultimate medicine", "what medicine" [什末药, unconventional writing of shénme yào 什么药], etc.)
Over a thousand years after the word for myrrh was transmitted overland to continental East Asia, it also travelled via the ocean to Japan, brought by the Portuguese. The Japanese word for "mummy" is mīra ミイラ ("myrrh") because, when the Portuguese were selling Egyptian mummies to the Japanese as medicine, they often mentioned myrrh as one of the preservatives, and the Japanese took the part for the whole.
Starting in 1543, the Portuguese were the first modern Europeans to visit Japan. Consequently, many words of Portuguese origin entered the Japanese vocabulary, including, of course, the word for bread: pan パン, from Portuguese pão.
Surprisingly, such a quintessential Japanese dish as tempura derives from Portuguese (cf. tempero ["seasoning"]).
The Japanese word for "pants; trousers") is a little bit more complicated. Portuguese jibão ("underwear") led to Japanese juban / jiban ("underwear for kimonos"), but its cognate in French, jupon, led to zubon in Japanese.
Likewise, kappa ("raincoat") derives from Portuguese capa (nowadays yielding to reinkōto).
A few more:
Jap. manto < Port. manto ("cloak")
Jap. chokki < Port. jaque ("jacket; vest")
Jap. kurusu < Port. cruz ("cross")
Jap. rozario < Port. rosario ("rosary")
Japn. fetisshu < Port. feitiço ("spell; charm; sorcery"), though I suppose this may have come via English
So, the next time you go to a Japanese restaurant wearing a cape or cloak, vest, and trousers (well, underpants) to have tempura with bread, you can thank the Portuguese who brought these items to Japan. But avoid the mummies in Japanese museums, for they might cast a fetish upon you, causing you to run for your rosary and cross.
[Thanks to Frank Chance and Gene Hill]