Week five: ANKUS (probability 7938), by David Sutton

An ANKUS (or ANKUSH) is a spiked elephant goad. The word is of Hindustani origin, and I remember well where I first met it: in the title of Kipling's Mowgli story, 'The King's Ankus'. Here is Kipling's description of the object that Mowgli finds among the king's treasure guarded by the great white cobra: 'It was a three-foot ankus, or elephant-goad — something like a small boat-hook. The top was one round, shining ruby and eight inches of the handle below it were studded with rough turquoises, giving a most satisfactory grip'. Obviously a fairly substantial piece would be required to stimulate such a pachydermatous beast as an elephant!

Elephant management contributes various other exotic words to our Scrabble vocabulary. The driver of an elephant, who would have wielded an ANKUS, is called MAHOUT, from a Hindi word. The pavilion or seat on the back of an elephant is called a HOWDAH or HOUDAH, this time from the Arabic. And the dangerous frenzy that elephants get into at certain times, causing them to run AMOK or AMUCK, is called MUSTH. AMOK comes from the Malay amoq, frenzied, and MUSTH from the Persian mast, intoxicated. Our travellers and traders brought back so many words from that linguistic melting-pot of the world, along with rubies and spices and rare fabrics, and in their way no less precious.


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