A man enjoys high tide waves during monsoon rains in Mumbai, India. Photo: AP
Language Matters
by Lisa Lim
Language Matters
by Lisa Lim

How the words ‘monsoon’ and ‘trade wind’ blew into the English language

  • ‘Monsoon’ originates in the Arabic ‘mawsim’, meaning ‘time of year’ or ‘appropriate season’, transitioning into English via Portuguese and Dutch
  • A ‘trade wind’ was originally unconnected with the use of ‘trade’ with reference to commerce, instead coming from a German word for ‘path’ or ‘track’

In East and Southeast Asia, it is the time of the summer monsoons, when large-scale wind systems blow in from the southwest, bringing warm, moist air from the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. In winter, as the Asian land mass cools, the monsoon reverses and cold, dry winds blow from the northeast.

The word “monsoon” captures these seasonal changes in the prevailing winds. It originates in the Arabic mawsim, meaning “time of year; appropriate season”, as for a voyage or pilgrimage. This in turn comes from the word wasama, “to mark”.

The Portuguese encountered this Arabic word during their Indian Ocean explorations and interactions with Arab navigators, merchants and traders in the 15th and 16th centuries. Entering Portuguese in the early 1500s as monção or moução, it was used initially for anything that occurred each year, such as a festival.

It was also used for the season when the monsoon blew from the southwest (April through to October), providing the right winds for voyages to the East Indies.

Traditional Arab sailing vessels called dhows were primarily used to carry heavy items, like fruit, along the coasts of the Arabian Peninsula, Pakistan, India and East Africa. Photo: Getty Images

The Portuguese word was subsequently incorporated into Dutch (and most major European languages) as monson, and then into English, likely from both Portuguese and Dutch – both nations had explorers in the region before the British.

One of the earliest records of the word can be found in the 1598 Discours of Voyages into Ye East and West Indies, by Dutch merchant, trader and historian Jan Huyghen van Linschoten (the English translation of his 1596 Itinerario), who notes: “In Goa they stayed till the Monson, or time of the windes came in to sayle for China.”

Languages at risk in places like Indonesia are vital to saving marine world

With the summer monsoon being stronger, and often having more significant impact in terms of rainfall and flooding, the word “monsoon” often is used to mean the summer monsoon or its heavy rains.

A related term is “trade wind”. This was originally unconnected with the use of “trade” with reference to commerce. Rather, it was borrowed from the Dutch and Middle Low German trade, “path, track, direction”. A trade wind once had the meaning – now obsolete – of a wind that blows steadily in the same direction for a long period, especially at sea.

Because of the importance of trade winds for commercial navigation, as well as sailors’ familiarity with Indian Ocean monsoons and tropical easterlies, “trade winds” eventually came to be associated specifically with these regional winds.