Magi, myrrh, and mummies

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'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 ), 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]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    December 24, 2014 @ 5:44 pm

    Some folks are probably wondering where the Chinese word for mummy, mùnǎiyī 木乃伊, comes from. See the following for various views:

    For the English word:

  2. Ethan Bradford said,

    December 24, 2014 @ 5:49 pm

    Isn't "arigato" [thank you] from Portuguese "obrigado"?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    December 24, 2014 @ 6:21 pm

    In the Old Uyghur Fragment of the Magicians, discovered in Turfan and dating from between the 9th and 10th centuries, based on the Syriac Book of the Cave of Treasures (late 5th century), and the apocryphal Gospel of James (2nd century), we find the story of the gifts of the Magi: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

    See John C. England, The Hidden History of Christianity in Asia: The Churches of the East Before 1500 (1996), p. 130.

  4. Barom Chon said,

    December 24, 2014 @ 8:02 pm

    Don't forget 金平糖 or konpeitō, Japanese sugar candy, from the Portuguese confeito.

  5. Plane said,

    December 24, 2014 @ 8:17 pm

    @EthanBradford No, Japanese arigatō is not from Portuguese obrigado, as it was used before any contact with Portuguese speakers and has a more plausible and generally accepted etymology.

    You can find discussion of this all over the web, but see for example the sci.lang.japan FAQ or 語源由来辞典 for some discussion.

  6. Eric P Smith said,

    December 24, 2014 @ 8:20 pm

    Thank you, Victor, for these interesting seasonal explanations. And Happy Christmas! (01:20 here)

  7. joe manning said,

    December 24, 2014 @ 9:07 pm

    lovely Victor.

    merry christmas.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    December 24, 2014 @ 9:08 pm

    From a specialist in Iranian Studies:

    Fascinating. The only thing I can add is that although I believe there continues to be some confusion among scholars about the relationship between Zoroastrianism and Zurvanism (mainly I think because they are all a particular minority brand of philologist), I side with my old Oxford tutor, R.C.Zaehner, who saw Zurvanism as material that has somehow survived from the Iranian folk religion out of which Zoroaster developed his prophethood. What you have found in Chinese material may be the only earlier evidence we have of the Indo-Aryan folk religion that from the second millennium onwards formed the cultural basis of religious thinking in both Iran and India.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    December 25, 2014 @ 12:37 am



    Kōjien 広辞苑


  10. John Rohsenow said,

    December 25, 2014 @ 3:31 am

    In Taiwan they sell a kind of cake they call "katsura" (sp?) which we were
    told was the Japanese pron. of the word Portuguese word
    "Castille", which is of course Spanish. If true, that would be quite a lot of etymological borrowing!

  11. Bobbie said,

    December 25, 2014 @ 4:28 am

    "The Japanese word for "mummy" is mīra ミイラ ("myrrh") because, when the Portuguese were selling Egyptian mummies to the Japanese as medicine…. " Can you tell us more?

  12. Victor Mair said,

    December 25, 2014 @ 9:03 am


    Here are some links for you:

    article in Slate

    Világunk határai

    A New Dictionary of the Portuguese and English Languages: Portuguese-English

    Loanwords in Japanese

    The Scientific Study of Mummies

    An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary: With an Index of English Words

    The Woman's Hand: Gender and Theory in Japanese Women's Writing

    Yakushigaku Zasshi. 2003;38(1):106-9.
    [Myrrh and mummy, Kamille and Ka-Mi-Tsu-Re].
    [Article in Japanese]
    Uchibayashi M1.
    Author information

    Myrrh and mummy were separately introduced into Japan and were individually called MIIRA in Japanese for a certain period of time, during which some confusion ensued. Later, it was settled to call them MOTSUYAKU for myrrh and MIIRA for mummy. The etymology of related terms is discussed. Camomile (English) or Kamille (Dutch) was brought to Japan and named KAMITSURE with the "ts" sound inserted. This insertion was the outcome of a popular misunderstanding of the phonetic transcription of the Dutch word. The etymology of related terms is also discussed.

    I could provide dozens of more references, but I hope this satisfies your curiosity for now.

  13. J. M. Unger said,

    December 25, 2014 @ 9:34 am

    The cake John Rohsenow mentioned is J kasutera, a speciality of Kyushu now found all over the country and no doubt introduced to Taiwan by the Japanese.

  14. leoboiko said,

    December 25, 2014 @ 9:56 am

    Also karuta "playing cards" ← Pt. carta "card; missive; chart"; sarada "salad" ← Pt. salada.

    As a native Portuguese speaker, tempura always struck me as the odd one. It sounds much closer to Pt. têmpora "temples" (of face), except that doesn't make sense…

  15. Victor Mair said,

    December 25, 2014 @ 11:15 am


    I was waiting for you to say something, because I knew that you were a native speaker of Portuguese. Thanks for the two new words added to our list.

  16. Bobbie said,

    December 25, 2014 @ 12:02 pm

    Can you direct me to an article about how (and why) the Portuguese sold mummies to the Japanese? That was the specific topic that caught my attention. (p.s. – I love all the interplay between languages! )

  17. Andy said,

    December 25, 2014 @ 12:44 pm

    Excellent Christmas term story. Thanks Victor!

  18. Rodger C said,

    December 25, 2014 @ 1:34 pm

    My understanding was that tempura is based on a dish the Portuguese ate during the Ember Days (quattuor tempora).

  19. Yoko Nishimura said,

    December 25, 2014 @ 5:22 pm

    Very interesting.
    I'd like to add to your list カボチャ (pumpkin), バター (butter), フラスコ (flask), and ビードロ (vidro/glass) as some of the loan words from Portugal or Dutch after the mid-16th century.

  20. Noel Hunt said,

    December 25, 2014 @ 5:59 pm

    Some more examples of Portuguese borrowings into Japanese:

    サラサ sarasa `saraça' – `a type of cloth with intricate patterns of flowers, birds, animals etc. Printed rather than dyed.'

    ビロード birōdo `veludo' (or Spanish `velludo') – `velvet'

    ボタン botan `botão' – `button'

    ラシャ rasha `raxa' – `thick, closely woven fabric of sheep wool'

    コンペイト konpeito `confeito' – `a hard sweet'

    バッテラ battera `bateira' (`ship, boat') -`type of sushi presented on a dish shaped like a boat'

    タバコ tabako `tabaco' – `tabacco; cigarette'

  21. Matt said,

    December 25, 2014 @ 8:53 pm

    My favorite Portuguese loanword in Japanese is "igirisu" (< Inglês) because I've seen so many English speakers shift from "Ha ha, silly Japan, that doesn't sound anything like 'England'" to a slightly indignant "What? Why would they use the Portuguese word?" when they learn the truth. Merry Christmas, Language Log!

  22. Bernard said,

    December 26, 2014 @ 5:11 am

    For readers competent in Spanish, I recommend this novel on the Magi: "Regalo de Reyes", by Jesús Zamora Bonilla

  23. Dave Cragin said,

    December 26, 2014 @ 1:27 pm

    Great seasonal etymologies.

    A nice thought piece written years ago by R Sirico entitled “Gods Gift, A commercial Christmas” (WSJ 1995) gives additional perspective on the frankincense , myrrh, and the gold given by the magi.

    The writer, a Paulist priest who had taken the vow of poverty, notes that the holiday season is a time for the annual screed against the commercialization of Christmas.

    Sirico notes that those that say this forget that the holiday materialism is driven primarily by a desire to give to others. That the holiday began with extravagant impractical gifts, i.e., a baby has little use for frankincense, myrrh and gold.

  24. Mark Stephenson said,

    December 26, 2014 @ 1:37 pm

    "a baby has little use for frankincense, myrrh and gold"

    Well, actually these are very expensive items, and could be traded by his parents for anything they needed.

  25. Mark Stephenson said,

    December 26, 2014 @ 1:41 pm

    Talking of Christmas etymology, the name "Jesus" has come rather a long way in spelling and sound from its Hebrew origin, through Greek and Latin to English.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    December 26, 2014 @ 2:16 pm


    From the very beginning of my Japanese studies, I often wondered about "Igirisu" for England, so I'm very happy to have that one explained now. And thanks to you and others for your greetings to Language Log; they are much appreciated.

  27. Eric P Smith said,

    December 26, 2014 @ 4:37 pm

    The name “Jesus” has come rather a long way in spelling and sound from its Hebrew origin…

    I've charted the process on my own website, here.

  28. Dave Cragin said,

    December 26, 2014 @ 5:16 pm

    Mark – Thanks for completing the thought: selling the frankincense, myrrh and gold for profit is a form of commercialism (the equivalent of a modern day gift card).

    (Sirico didn't mention it – but it would have also been the 1st instant of Christmas re-gifting ).

  29. DMT said,

    December 27, 2014 @ 4:00 am

    Tangentially related: another interesting Japanese loanword from Portuguese is the Edo-period kapitan (from P. capitão "captain"), referring to the chief officer of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in Nagasaki. This officer’s title in Dutch was opperhoofd, but the Japanese never adopted the Dutch word and instead used a Portuguese word that had presumably been borrowed into the language during the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century.

    Japanese kapitan could be spelled using several alternative sets of kanji (甲比丹、甲必丹、加比旦). I suspect some or all of these spellings were borrowed from Chinese sources: the spellings with 甲 especially look like they were based on Chinese rather than Japanese pronunciations of the character, so if they were not taken from Chinese sources they must have been transcribed into Japanese on the basis of readings closer to historic Chinese pronunciations (e.g. kyap or kya prior to the palatalization of the velar in later Mandarin) than to the usual modern Japanese pronunciation (, kan). Note that the spelling 甲必丹 (MSM jiabidan) was also used in South-East Asia to mean “Kapitan Cina” (the head of an ethnic Chinese enclave in Dutch-controlled territories). However, I don't know of any detailed study of the relationships between the Portuguese, (Nanyang) Chinese, Dutch and Japanese versions of this word.

  30. Adam Funk said,

    December 30, 2014 @ 4:43 pm

    "a baby has little use for frankincense, myrrh and gold"

    I'm surprised no-one has mentioned Life of Brian yet ("It is a precious balm." — "A bomb? What kind of gift is that for a baby? What if it goes off?").

  31. Graeme said,

    January 1, 2015 @ 4:33 pm

    But what if there were 12 magi, as in eastern tradition?
    Would that be less commercialised? An early instance of collective gift giving?

  32. Noel Hunt said,

    January 1, 2015 @ 5:50 pm

    I think the scene from `Life of Brian' is somewhat different from that recalled by Adam Funk:

    Melchior: Well, well, we must see him, we have brought presents!

    Mother: Out!

    Gaspar: Gold, frankincense, myrrh!

    Mother: Well, why didn't you say? He's over there. Sorry the place is a…bit of a mess. Well, what is myrrh anyway?

    Balthasar: It is a valuable balm.

    Mother: A balm?! What are you giving him a balm for? It might bite him!

    Balthasar: What?

    Mother: That's a dangerous animal! Quick, throw it in the trough!

  33. Adam Funk said,

    January 2, 2015 @ 3:52 pm

    @Noel Hunt: You're right. Now I can't figure out where I've heard the precious balm/bomb joke!

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