joss

Up to today, this word would call forth four things for me:

  1. Joss Ackland, British actor, male, who’s been in a gazillion things but who I remember best from the 1987 movie White Mischief, a murder mystery based on a true happening among a particularly debauched set of people in colonial Kenya, the true story of which was recounted (among other things) in the fascinating book The Bolter.
  2. Joss Stone, British singer, female.
  3. Joss Whedon, American director, screenwriter, and actor, male.
  4. Joss sticks, a kind of incense.

Joss Ackland and Joss Whedon have in common that they are males, and actors. Joss Ackland and Joss Stone have in common that they are British and their names are both short for Jocelyn, which, like Vivian and Marion, used to be commonly borne by men. (Joss Whedon is Joseph.) They all have their spots in the IMDB (Internet Movie Database) pantheon, whether or not you would call any of them idols.

But then there are those joss sticks. I was never sure why they were called joss sticks. I was never in a position to look it up when the question occurred to me. The word just seems jaunty and maybe a bit exotic, in an Anglicized way. Was joss a word for something mystical? Was it borrowed from something to do with, say, horsemanship, or a sport like jousting or some kind of tossing, or something more functional? Or was it one of the ingredients?

Then, today, I was reading Rudyard Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills, an early collection of short stories, in an Oxford edition replete with explanatory notes. I read the story titled “The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows,” which is about an opium den in Lahore run by a Chinese expatriate. I read this: “In one corner used to stand Fung-Tching’s Joss – almost as ugly as Fung-Tching – and there were always sticks burning under his nose; but you never smelt ’em when the pipes were going thick.”

There was no explanatory note. Apparently Oxford assumed all the readers would know what a joss was. Or else they were just relying on their figuring it out from context – the Joss gets a further passage about it from which it is easy to tell that it is a statue.

A statue of what? A Chinese deity, as it happens.

Joss is a Chinese word? It most certainly is not. I have yet to encounter a dialect of Chinese in which that is a plausible word phonologically; although there are many more dialects than I have met, word-final /s/ is quite out of play in the ones I’ve seen.

No, joss is a word from Chinese Pidgin English, a language used for trade in south China, with simple syntax based on Chinese and with words largely taken from English and other European traders’ languages and modified to fit Chinese phonotactics more or less. The word pidgin, for instance, comes from the word business.

The word joss is, as I mentioned, a word for a Chinese deity (or similar) or statue thereof. You may know that deity comes from the Latin word deus. Also from deus came Portuguese deos (that’s an old form). From Portuguese deos came Javanese dejos, which was used for Chinese religious statues. From dejos came Chinese Pidgin joss. And joss stuck, in English as well.

Joss sticks still. Well, joss sticks still sell, anyway, and burn, more often in home incense holders than in front of statues of deities. Joss isn’t a word you’re likely to see applied directly to a Chinese statue in ordinary usage now. But you do see it on some members of the IMDB pantheon. And now you can take it as emblematic of how some word forms burn down like incense, in sense and in form.

4 responses to “joss

  1. Fascinating (and funny) as ever. And pidgin English was simply a lingua franca for business purposes, then as now? Never knew that.

  2. Anyone who has read the novels of James Clavell has encountered the word joss. It is used to mean luck or fortune, purportedly used by Cantonese speakers. Unfortunately, I no longer have my copy of TAIPAN, so, I cannot give any citations. I remember one incident. A Cantonese businessman was in a building which collapsed in an earthquake. He walked away unharmed, saying” Truly my joss is great!” or words to that effect.

  3. And a fun coincidence (or is it?) (probably is.) (or is it?) for us passionate Firefly Flans. In a scene of Serenity Inara is lighting Joss sticks in a shrine – while director Joss Whedon directs the film. (or is it?) (probably is.)

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