Ask paanwalla for direction: be Indian

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From (Twitter images):

Found this delightful definition of "paanwala" on BRF Dictionary:

This may also be spelled as "paanwallah". Literally taken, this means "betel leaf seller". It is composed of two Hindi words, "Paan", which means "betel leaf" and "wala" (or "wallah") which means "person associated with". Betel leaf and areca nut is a common breath freshener in India and there are other ingredients added as well depending on region, similar to sausage varieties in German towns. It is a chewable product and wikipedia has more information about "paan" in general.

A typical paanwala operates a small stall, roadside booth or push cart and usually is the sole owner of the business. These tiny paan stalls are immensly popular in India and local people generally gather around one to chew the product and talk. Therefore a typical paanwala knows all the latest neighborhood gossip and rumors. Thus in BRF parlance, when a member posts something like "My paanwala says that …" or "According to my paanwala, …", it means that he or she is reporting some unofficial inside information which cannot be independently verified at the moment. The source is usually some insider connected with the project in question, e.g. an engineer, mechanic, manager, accountant etc. The insider may also be a close relative or friend of the BRFite. For privacy reasons and to avoid revealing how the insider source is connected to the project, the BRFite instead credits the source of information to "local paanwala" by convention. Sometimes the information may be true or it may just be an empty rumor.

Also see:

And what is BRF?  Well, it's the Bharat Rakshak Forum.  And what is Bharat Rakshak?  It's the Rakshak of Bharat (India).  And what is Rakshak?   Hindi: रक्षक ("protector; defender; keeper; savior; vindicator; guard"; etc.).  So I suppose we may say that "Bharat Rakshak" implies "Indian Defense".  Checking Wikipedia, I see that it means "Defenders of India" and is identified as "a website devoted to discussing India's military affairs. It was started and is run by military enthusiasts."

The suffix "wallah" is one of my favorite Hindustani expressions.  It signifies a person concerned or involved with a specific thing or business; a specialist in or seller of whatever, e.g., "ice cream wallah".  You can even be a Shakespeare Wallah.  "Wallah" can also refer to a native or inhabitant of a certain place, e.g., "Bombay wallah".

For a learned explanation of "wallah", see Hobson-Jobson, that magisterial dictionary of Anglo-Indian words and phrases by Col. Henry Yule and A. C. Burnell, Ph.D. (1886), new edition by William Crooke, B.A. (1903), under "competition-wallah", pp. 239b-240b.  For a link to the digital version provided by the University of Chicago, click here.

[h.t. Geoff Wade]


  1. Jin Defang said,

    November 11, 2017 @ 11:20 am

    so the wallah part overlaps somewhat, though incompletely,
    with the definition of a "maven," then.

  2. J said,

    November 11, 2017 @ 11:40 am

    My China wallah says 的 can be pronounced [di]…

  3. Jayarava said,

    November 11, 2017 @ 12:35 pm

    From The Oxford Hindi-English Dictionary. Wallah from -vālā; suffix forming an adjectival compound with a noun or an agentive sense with a verb;" But this is not a Sanskrit suffix so far as I know (and have been able to find out).

    Ultimately according to some sources, e.g. Merriam-Webster, from Sanskrit pāla पाल (√pāl "to protect"). Oxford cite pālaka पालक ‘keeper’. Not sure about a sound change from /p/ to /v/ in North India. Other sources suggest an Arabic root, but not what it might be. Pāla is pāl in Hindi. As in Gopal 'cow-herd'.Pal is a common surname in Bengal. So I'd say that pāla > vālā doesn't compute. Besides in Bengal there is a strong /v/ to /b/ shift for Sanskrit words, eg. vajra > bajra (hence it is spelled badzra in Tibet).

    According to Merriam-Webster: The first use of "wallah" appeared as "lootywallah" in a narrative penned by Officer Innes Munro describing his time deployed on the Coromandel Coast of India in the 1780s. "Looty," or "lootie," was a noun sometimes applied to a member of a band of marauders or robbers. In the narrative, Munro used the term to describe looting cavalrymen. In current writing, "wallah" is typically accompanied by words like "office" or "marketing."

    I suspect the term was in use long before Englishmen noticed it in the 1780s

  4. cameron said,

    November 11, 2017 @ 3:06 pm

    Among the more renowned "wallahs" are the dabbawallahs (a.k.a. tiffin wallahs) of Mumbai.

    There's a restaurant in New York called Tiffin Wallah that touts itself as both kosher and vegetarian. I guess any vegetarian Indian restaurant would tend to be kosher by default, but I suppose they have to pay a rabbi to certify them.

  5. Jayarava said,

    November 11, 2017 @ 5:22 pm

    Yes! The dabbawallahs in Mumbai were the subject of Harvard Business Review article
    They are truly remarkable.

    They also feature in the film The Lunch Box, which I highly recommend as a film, but also for the insights into the dabbawallah business.

  6. hanmeng said,

    November 11, 2017 @ 7:27 pm

    I thought the betel or areca nut was chewed as a stimulant, and was not very healthy. Not to mention unsightly.

  7. Graeme said,

    November 12, 2017 @ 4:30 am

    Isn't 'betel nut' really a palm nut, the source of the nicotine-like high? But falsely called 'betel' due to it being commonly chewed with the betel (vine) leaf and/or lime, to soothe the mouth and mask the taste.

    Like marijuana and tobacco itself there are dozens of other word variants, especially across languages.

  8. ajay said,

    November 12, 2017 @ 12:51 pm

    so the wallah part overlaps somewhat, though incompletely,
    with the definition of a "maven," then.

    Doesn't "maven" imply expertise, though? A wallah is just a man who does something, or even just is associated with something. Chaiwalla, bottlewalla, taxiwalla and so on. (Some of these have actually become heritable surnames in much the same way that Baxter, Brewer, etc. did in English.)
    The mu- prefix in Swahili is similar, I believe – hence Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda, got his surname from his father, who was a museveni, i.e. a man of the Seventh Battalion the King's African Rifles.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 12, 2017 @ 3:00 pm

    Who in India cares so much about doing things the Indian way that they put up signs like that?

    And is the sign in English because anyone using Google Maps must know some English?

  10. V said,

    November 12, 2017 @ 3:16 pm

    Is it perhaps related to Arabiuc Wali?

  11. V said,

    November 12, 2017 @ 3:20 pm

    Wali, sorry.

  12. V said,

    November 12, 2017 @ 3:25 pm

    It also corresponds with Bulga
    rian Валия.

  13. Jayarava said,

    November 12, 2017 @ 4:00 pm

    @ Jerry Friedman

    English is one of several official languages in India. They speak English in India because for about 300 years, until 1949, they were conquered and ruled by the British, who basically enslaved the population and got fantastically wealthy as a result. So the fact that there is a sign in English is a) no surprise, and b) not an occasion for mockery. English still functions as a lingua franca, especially between people whose mother tongues are mutually incomprehensible.

    As to who puts up such signs, India is currently experiencing waves of right-wing nationalism, to the extent that they make up the government. Many Western scholars have had their books banned for example, for writing narratives which disagree with the nationalist agenda. Perhaps this was inevitable given the failures of post-colonial governments to remediate the damage caused by Britain.

    If you actually *look* at Google maps you will see that the default setting is that place names are in the predominant language and script of that country; as well as a version in the language of your choice. In India each region has labels in the predominant local script.


  14. Jayarava said,

    November 12, 2017 @ 4:01 pm

    @V Arabic Walī (ولي‎‎) seems to refer to saints. It seems an unlikely source for wallah.

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 13, 2017 @ 1:20 pm

    Jayarava: Thanks for the reply. I don't know why you mentioned mockery. Speaking of which, though, I had picked up a few hints that Britain had colonized India at some point.

    You were right to infer that I hadn't looked at Google Maps for India or any other country that uses a non-Roman script. Incidentally, I just noticed that there's an area in Odisha where Google Maps shows place names only in the Roman alphabet. Do you know why, by any chance?

    Wikipedia tells me that about 12% of the population of India spoke English in 2001, citing this Times of India article referring to the 2001 census and this article from The Hindu that says the number of English has undoubtedly made a "huge jump" since that census. Despite that jump, I think there was a basis for my surprise. Of course, if you tell me there are places, even the whole country, where a sign in English is a better idea than a sign in the predominant local script, I'll take your word for it.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 13, 2017 @ 1:35 pm

    Or "the number of English speakers", for you English speakers out there.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    November 13, 2017 @ 2:51 pm

    Remember this post?

    "The languages of India" (4/7/17):


    At several stations on the commute from Swarthmore to University City station, around half of the people who get on the train are Indians. Usually they are happily conversing with each other in one or another South Asian language.

    Today the train was packed, and I was sitting on the aisle seat next to four Indian men who were talking to each other in Tamil. I asked them, "When you meet other Indians, how do you know which language to speak to them?"

    They all said, almost with one voice, "We start out talking in English."

    I asked, "Not Hindi?"

    Short reply, "No."

    I mentioned that India has so many languages. Again, almost with one voice, they said, "Yes, 22!"

    I replied, "Probably a lot more than that".

    They seemed very happy that I recognized their language and was willing to engage them on the linguistic situation in India. And I would have been very happy to continue the conversation, but I had to get off at University City station.


  18. ajay said,

    November 15, 2017 @ 9:19 am

    They speak English in India because for about 300 years

    So, from the mid 17th century? Nope.

    ,i> until 1949


    they were conquered and ruled by the British, who basically enslaved the population

    Hahahaha nope. Slavery was abolished in India while it was under British rule.

  19. (Eric) said,

    November 18, 2017 @ 3:12 pm

    I am interested to learn of the BRF, a sort of counterpart to the Pakistani Defence Forum, which seems to pop up in a fair number of my Google searches. I wonder which came first.

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