An Austronesian word for "betel"

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On Joshua Yang's Twitter (@joshiunn):

Words for "betel" in diverse languages:

Betel, derived from the (Tamil/Malayalam) word vettalai (வெற்றிலை), via Portuguese.


An Anglo-Indian word for "betel" is "paan":

A psychoactive preparation of betel leaf combined with areca nut and/or cured tobacco, chewed recreationally in Asia; such a preparation served wrapped in the leaf. [from 16th c.]

Borrowed from Hindi पान (pān).


Inherited from Sauraseni Prakrit (paṇṇa), from Sanskrit पर्ण (parṇá), from Proto-Indo-Aryan *parnám, from Proto-Indo-Iranian *parnám, from Proto-Indo-European *pornóm (feather, wing). Doublet of पर्ण (parṇ, leaf) and पन्ना (pannā, page).


The common word for "betel" in the European languages that I'm aware of are derived from the same Dravidian root as that which I cited just under the Tweet above. Ditto for Korean, but Japanese has "kinma" キンマ / きんま (written 蒟醤 in kanji [I was previously unaware of the first character, pronounced jǔ in MSM]), Vietnamese has "trầu" (see below for the derivation), and Tagalog has "ikmo" or "buyo" (I do not know the difference between these two terms, nor do I know their derivation).  The usual word for betel in Chinese is bīngláng / bīnláng 檳榔:

Borrowed from a Southern language, possibly a Mon-Khmer language. Compare Northern Khmer [script needed] (naːt-phlɤːŋ, a kind of betel leaf bush), Thavung phalʌ̰̂ː (betel); Malay pinang; Acehnese pineung, Tsat naːŋ³³ (< Proto-Chamic *pinaːŋ (betel nut)), as well as Proto-Mon-Khmer *ml[əw] (betel), whence Khmer ម្លូ (mluu), Vietnamese trầu (< Proto-Vietic *b-luː), Thai พลู (pluu) and perhaps Chinese 扶留 (OC *pa/ba m·ru/m·rus, “a leaf chewed together with betel nut”).


While "betel" refers to the leaf of the Piper betle), many people think of it in relation to the areca nut, shavings of which are chewed together with the betel leaf (in Sinitic, that more specifically is lóu 蒌).  The plant has more than a dozen different names in Sinitic languages, most of which are rare and known only within a few topolects.

What is betel nut?

A deep red or purple smile is a common sight in many parts of Asia and the Pacific. But what’s behind it?

This red residue is the telltale sign of the betel nut, which is chewed by millions of people across the globe. In its most basic form, betel nut is a seed of the Areca catechu, a type of palm tree. It’s commonly chewed after being ground up or sliced and wrapped in leaves of the Piper betle vine that have been coated with lime. This is known as a betel quid. Tobacco or flavorful spices may also be added.

(source –this article, from an online health website, has information about the history, medical benefits and dangers, psychoactive properties, and other aspects of betel chewing; while not addressed here, the environmental and ecological impact of betel use is enormous)

I have had a long-standing interest in the betel ever since I went to Nepal in 1965 — via Calcutta — and saw red spit spewn all over the ground, thinking at first that it was blood and being horrified at the sight.  Gradually, I came to learn of its key role in South and Southeast Asian culture and economy.

Language Log readers are hereby invited to share their personal encounters with betel nut chewing, also any scholarly or literary references they may have to the betel nut in society and history.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Ciarán]


  1. Jerry Packard said,

    May 23, 2021 @ 5:42 pm

    I partook of betel nuts in Taiwan in the 1970s and much later in Beijing in the mid 2000s, which I was surprised to find sold in a kiosk not far from the Peking U campus. They were chewed with a chalky white paste to cut the acidic taste. Like chewing tobacco, you usually spit it out rather than swallow. The feeling after partaking is a sense of warmth that emanates throughout the mouth and abdomen, something like a strong shot of whiskey. Rather than slow you down like alcohol, however, they speed you up like a couple of strong espressos. In Taiwan they were chewed in the wintertime by motorcycle drivers who used them to 'warm them up' on their early morning jaunts.

  2. Martin Schäfer said,

    May 23, 2021 @ 6:00 pm

    Betel nut in Tok Pisin is "buai" (cf. the Tagalog buyo?), and there is a documentary by Chris Owen on Betelnut bisnis. Youtube has a selection of songs about buai from that documentary

  3. LAR said,

    May 23, 2021 @ 7:27 pm

    See There are a number of forms for betel/betel chew in Austronesian languages.

  4. LAR said,

    May 23, 2021 @ 7:51 pm

    See especially Proto-Malayo-Polynesian (PMP) *mamaq.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    May 23, 2021 @ 8:34 pm

    For an excellent study of the position of the court functionary whose role it was to prepare and offer betel to the king and his guests, see Daud Ali, "The Betel-Bag Bearer in,Medieval South Indian History: A Study from Inscriptions", in Manu Devadevan, ed., Clio and her Descendants: Essays for Kesavan Veluthat (Delhi: Primus Books, 2018) 535-558. In this context, betel is referred to by the Sanskrit word tāmbūla.

  6. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 23, 2021 @ 9:22 pm

    I had never heard of betel nuts as far as I recall until the 1960s, when I listened to the soundtrack of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific.” This was a record with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza singing the lead roles. I borrowed it from the bookmobile—I don’t think I saw video of the film until decades later. The musical grapples with prejudice while missing the prejudices it presents.

    The song “You’ve got to be carefully taught” felt very insightful to me as a teen, and in fact presents some truths, however incomplete they may be. The song “Bloody Mary” is intended to be comedic, and as a teen I never considered what it was teaching me about betel nuts or anything else.

    So—not so much a literary as a cultural reference. I never did read the James Michener book that inspired the show, so I don’t know how, or if, betel nuts are mentioned there.

  7. Peter Grubtal said,

    May 24, 2021 @ 1:34 am

    Somewhere in the works of George Orwell, reminiscing about his time in the colonial police in Burma, he mentions being called out because someone had spat betel juice over the dress of an English lady in the market.

    The lime reminds me of being invited to chew coca leaves in Bolivia: there you put a bit a mineral matter (which I suppose was lime as well) in your mouth with the leaves to enhance the effect.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    May 24, 2021 @ 4:08 am

    I have chewed betel nut, and I have eaten paan, but when attempting to make my own version of the latter I have never dared to include lime, being completely ignorant as to whether this is meant to be quicklime or some more benign variety …

  9. Cervantes said,

    May 24, 2021 @ 7:48 am

    BP Long – the betel nut reference in South Pacific is actually in the song "Bloody Mary"

    Bloody Mary is the girl I love.
    Bloody Mary is the girl I love.
    Bloody Mary is the girl I love.
    Now ain't that too damn bad!

    Her skin is tender as Dimaggio's glove.
    Her skin is tender as Dimaggio's glove.
    Her skin is tender as Dimaggio's glove.
    Now ain't that too damn bad!

    Bloody Mary's chewin' betel nuts.
    She is always chewin' betel nuts.
    Bloody Mary's chewin' betel nuts.
    And she don't use Pepsodent!

  10. Mark Alves said,

    May 24, 2021 @ 7:54 am

    The spread (both deep history and relatively more recent) of the betel/areca chewing practice is certainly interesting. I recently published on Vietic ethnolinguistic history (reference below). Below is an excerpt from it on betel chewing, with a focus on early proto-language forms in Vietic, Austroasiatic, Austronesian, and Tai, along with notes on the pre-Qin archaeology. Full disclosure: while ‘betel leaf’ and ‘mineral lime’ have wide distribution in Mainland Southeast Asian Austroasiatic languages (i.e. not Munda (which unsurprisingly has Hindi paan) or Nicobaric), ‘areca leaf’ *kaw is limited to Vietic and Monic as words for ‘areca’ consist of many different forms among Austroasiatic languages with no clear pattern.

    Mark Alves
    p.s. The only time I chewed it was not in Vietnam, where it's mostly chewed by older women in rural areas. It was with a taxi driver in Tainan, Taiwan eager to introduce it to a foreigner (me), along with beer and snacks, of course.

    (Source: Alves, Mark. 2020. Historical Ethnolinguistic Notes on Proto-Austroasiatic and Proto-Vietic Vocabulary in Vietnamese. Journal of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society 13.2:xiii-xlv.

    6.10 Betel-nut chewing and tooth-blackening
    The deep history of the practice of betel-nut chewing among early Vietic speakers is supported in the linguistic data. Words for ‘betel’, ‘areca’, and ‘lime (mineral)’ used in betel-nut chewing preparations (see Table 14) are all attested widely among the three Vietic subgroups and readily reconstructed at the Proto-Vietic level. The overlapping practices of betel-nut chewing and tooth-blackening are spread throughout both Mainland and Insular Southeast Asia. The origins of the practices of betel-nut chewing and overlapping practice of tooth-blackening are of debate. Such stains on teeth have been excavated among a group of individuals in the Philippines dating to 2660 BCE, and the practice may have spread in the region via Austronesian expansion (e.g. Zumbroich 2007).
    As for northern Vietnam, archaeological data of dental remains show that betel-nut chewing and tooth-blackening (nhuộm răng) were practiced in the Núi Nấp archaeological site considerably later, as early as 400 BCE (Oxenham, Locher, Nguyen, and Nguyen 2002) in the Đông Sơn era. Przyluski (1929:15-24) noted some of the comparable Austroasiatic terms for ‘betel’ (suggesting possible spread of this to Aryan languages). Moreover, two of the Proto-Vietic words have also been reconstructed for Proto-Austroasiatic, though the geographic distributions of the words appear restricted to the central part of Mainland Southeast Asia. Corresponding to the archaeological data noted above, Blust and Trussel (2010) reconstructs Proto-Malayo-Polynesian ‘betel pepper’ as *bu-bulu, a promising comparable form. An additional complicating factor is the Proto-Tai reconstruction *bluA ‘betel nut’ (Li), a likely match that suggests a regionally spread word. It is thus impossible to determine the precise route of transmission, and it is possible that it spread in multiple directions at multiple times. More archaeological data is required to be able to provide more details.
    Regardless of various complicating factors, the terms are widespread in Vietic, with some degree of complex phonological structure (e.g. presyllabic material). This provides support that they date at least to the pre-Qin part of the Đông Sơn in northern Vietnam.

    Table 15: Proto-Vietic and chewing betel
    Vietnamese Gloss Proto-Vietic Proto-Austroasiatic
    vôi lime, mineral *k-puːr *knpur
    trầu / giầu betel leaf *b-luː *ml[əw] (or #blu:)
    cau areca nut *kaw NA

  11. Wolfgang Behr said,

    May 24, 2021 @ 11:25 am

    Bibliographical footnote:
    Back in 1929, when the doyen of critical Chinese historiography Gu Jiegang 顧頡剛 (1893-1980) was just as busy demythologizing the narratives surrounding the "five emperors" of antiquity as establishing Chinese folklore studies as a field of research, he edited a special issue of his Minsu Zhoukan 民俗周刊 (Ethnography Weekly) devoted to the culture of betel-nut chewing in China. One of the most useful recent papers on the subject, full of historical distribution maps and data culled form all sorts of materials, especially local gazeteers is

    –Gu Shengbo 郭聲波 & Liu Xingliang 劉興亮, "Zhongguo binglang zhongzhi yu binlang xisu wenhua de lishi dili tansuo" 中國檳榔種植舆檳榔習俗文化的歷史地理探索 [A historical-geographic study if betelnut planting and betelnut customs in China], Zhongguo lishi dili luncong 中國歷史地理論叢 24.4 (2009): 5-15

    For the literary representations of the practice in Medieval Chinese literature, there is also

    –Wu Chunqiu 呉春秋, "Shilun gudia wenxue zhong de binlang" 試論古典文學中的檳榔 [Preliminary discussion of the betel-nut in Classical literature], Hainan Daxue xuebao 海南大學學報 32.3 (2014): 56-62.

    While both articles do not explicitely discuss the borrowing process of the loanword binlang in Early Chinese at any depth, they are important for listing the textual evidence for the many alternative names of the plant in the literature, including lou 蒌 and fuliu 扶留, as mentined by Victor.

  12. Chris Button said,

    May 24, 2021 @ 3:37 pm

    I wonder what the origin of Japanese "kinma" キンマ / 蒟醤 is? It's somewhat reminiscent of Burmese "kwam:" ကွမ်း.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    May 24, 2021 @ 7:49 pm

    From a Taiwanese friend:

    President Tsai Ing-wen's maternal grandmother was a Paiwan, and it is said that President Tsai as a youngster would go out to buy betel nuts for her grandma.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    May 24, 2021 @ 7:54 pm

    From a Chinese friend:

    The sign which Yang showed for “betel” consisting of the Chinese character 莎 and Japanese kana in Pingdong is not exceptional, since most Taiwanese read Chinese as well as Japanese kana. The sign is easier to make than 檳榔 and is more eye-catching . My own experience of betel in Taiwan is along the lines indicated by Jerry Packard except that he actually tried it but I only heard about its effect. It make your teeth all dark, gives you a shot as stimulating as coffee or tobacco, and it is addictive. In Taiwan thinly clad young girls are employed to attract customers to betel stands.

  15. R. Fenwick said,

    May 24, 2021 @ 11:09 pm

    @Martin Schäfer: Betel nut in Tok Pisin is "buai" (cf. the Tagalog buyo?)

    Yep, these two are cognate. The underlying Proto-Austronesian term is *buaq, which originally meant more generically "fruit", a meaning which it retains in the Formosan branches and many modern languages. The generic term came to refer specifically to "betel nut" several times in Malayo-Polynesian (with a lot of inter-language influence); that this shift likely occurred more than once is owed to an entirely expected typological shift. Compare English weed, grass "cannabis".

    and there is a documentary by Chris Owen on Betelnut bisnis.

    Tangentially, the usual term for betel nut in Tok Pisin is also buai, probably taken from Tolai. One occasionally hears bilinas in Pijin in the Solomons.

  16. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 25, 2021 @ 10:51 pm

    @Cervantes — Yes; I did say that “I never considered what it [“Bloody Mary”] was teaching me about betel nuts…”

  17. Deven Patel said,

    May 26, 2021 @ 9:36 pm

    There are many charming Sanskrit verses that describe not only the effects or social exchange value of pān, or the tāmbūla, but also the lovely redness it gives to the teeth. For instance, in a twelfth-century poem I recently read with students, the epithet for the heroine reads: kuruvinda-sakānti-danti or “O you whose teeth are as lustrous as rubies,” which a commentator explains as – "the comparison refers to the fact of the redness of her teeth brought on by the eating of many tāmbūlas” (anena bahu-tāmbūla-bhakṣanād dantānāṃ āraktatvam sūcitam).

  18. Fred Smith said,

    May 27, 2021 @ 1:08 pm

    Thanks for this. I too have chewed pān fairly often in India (without tambāku [tobacco]). What gives the red color is the catalytic action of khatta & chunnā (fine khadira sawdust and quicklime (chunnā < cūrṇa, "powdered," "pulverized") together rubbed on the leaf. They are ALWAYS applied. Supposedly they possess antiseptic properties, and kill any microorganisms. Whether that's true I don't know, but it's neither the leaf nor the nut that creates this red color.

  19. Rodger C said,

    May 29, 2021 @ 10:06 am

    To answer Philip Taylor's question, online sources say that the lime chewed with betel is slaked lime (calcium hydroxide), not quicklime (calcium oxide), which would burn the hell out of one's mouth.

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    May 29, 2021 @ 10:39 am

    That is certainly what I hoped, Rodger, but it is interesting to note that in the immediately preceding comment, Fred Smith identifies it as quicklime.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    May 29, 2021 @ 6:19 pm

    So-called betel nut cutters are found in many museum and private collections.

    Here is a 300+ year-old example in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam:

  22. Rodger C said,

    May 31, 2021 @ 10:04 am

    Slaked lime is quicklime "slaked" with water, and maybe it's called quicklime in some places.

  23. Philip Taylor said,

    June 2, 2021 @ 3:10 am

    "Slaked lime is quicklime "slaked" with water, and maybe it's called quicklime in some places" — Crikey. In that case, I sincerely hope that they call unslaked lime something other than quicklime, otherwise some very serious accidents are likely to ensue … !

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