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Recently I've been watching cooking programmes: MasterChef Italia (addictive), MasterChef USA (awful), followed swiftly by Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares, and then onto Jamie Oliver's acclaimed The Naked Chef. I have never seen any of Oliver's TV shows before but I love the language he uses: lovely jubbly, chuck that in, lugs of olive oil, whack 'em in there, hack that up, bash it all in, mush it all up, and... tastes pucker..., it's really really pucker,... ends up being dead tasty and looking dead pucker (6.50). The word is regularly scattered in the series, and it succeeded in baffling me totally.

Then in season 3, episode 5, Curry Feast (YouTube link), what sounded like an arcane cooking term was finally explained. ‘Pucker’ is in fact pukka, a Hindi word meaning “real”, which Oliver specified as: “real authentic, the real McCoy”. Later, I discovered that pucker and pukka were completely unrelated to one another despite being pronounced practically the same. Merriam-Webster has /ˈpə-kər/ and /ˈpə-kə/ respectively while Cambridge Dictionaries has /ˈpʌk.ə/ and Oxford /ˈpʌkə/ for both terms.

Merriam-Webster also shared this interesting footnote

Pukka tends to evoke the height of 18th- and 19th-century British imperialism in India, and, indeed, it was first used in English at the 1775 trial of Maha Rajah Nundocomar, who was accused of forgery and tried by a British court in Bengal. The word is borrowed from Hindi and Urdu "pakkā," which means "solid." The English speakers who borrowed it applied the "sound and reliable" sense of "solid" and thus the word came to mean "genuine." [...] These days, "pukka" is also used as a British slang word meaning "excellent" or "cool."

According to Collins English Dictionary the primary meaning of pukka is

  1. properly or perfectly done, constructed, etc: ⇒ a pukka road
  2. genuine ⇒ pukka sahib

Oxford Dictionaries says

  1. Genuine
    1.1 Of or appropriate to high or respectable society
  2. British Excellent:

Cambridge Dictionaries provides three definitions

  • [old-fashioned] ​real
  • [slang] of ​excellent ​quality
  • extremely ​formal and ​educated

But nowhere do they mention when its current slang meaning (excellent, cool), first appeared. Don't bother checking with Etymonline, it doesn't have any entry, which doesn't seem pukka to me.

  • When did its slang sense, i.e. excellent, first-rate, first appear?
  • Was pukka a dated term which came back in fashion in the 1990s?
  • Is pukka known only in the UK? How common is it?
  • Googling online it seems that pukka is mostly in connection with food, or is it a false impression? Can anything be really really pukka?
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    Etymonline is one guy, derived from OED and others. I don't think you could expect slang like pukka, especially when your first reference is as an 'arcane cooking term'.Also, it's not AmE at all. – Mitch Apr 12 '16 at 20:58
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    Pukka has always been around in my lifetime, in Britain - which goes back well before Jamie Oliver was born. I remember a schoolteacher who used to say I want your homework in by Friday - all neat and pukka. Last Saturday, at a football ground, I was offered a free Pukka Pie, but I politely declined. – WS2 Apr 13 '16 at 4:59
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    @Mari-LouA No there was never anything particularly elitist about it, not in my recollection anyway. I think it was probably a term widely used in the armed forces, particularly by those who had served in India or Burma; as had my father, from whom I probably learned it. George Orwell mentions it in his Burmese Days, about his time in the Imperial Police. The Indians had the expression Pukka Sahib (pronounced Saab, like the car). I think sahib may have come from sir. But a Pukka Sahib was a "perfect British gentleman". His wife was a Memsahib. – WS2 Apr 13 '16 at 8:50
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    I think pukka was always there, in my lifetime. I mean, I don't think it went away and came back again. – WS2 Apr 13 '16 at 8:56
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    Of course /ˈpə-kər/ is the American pronunciation of pucker, so there is does not sound the same as pukka. But, generally, Americans don't use pukka at all. – GEdgar Apr 15 '16 at 14:04
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According to Collins Dictionary, since the early 2000s there has been a steady decline in the usage of pukka in printed literature. Unfortunately, it's unknown if the data includes websites, online magazines and forums, but I suspect it doesn't. Taken at face value, it suggests that the term is falling out of favour particularly among British English native speakers.

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Google Ngram seems to confirm the downward trend, in stark contrast when pukka reached its peak of popularity in 1945, long before its modern slang meaning.

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According to Josephine Livingstone, who was writing for Prospect in 2013; the slang form, "excellent" and "first-rate", was first recorded in 1991.

For a full biography of this tricky little word, specifically in its incarnation as a loan-word into English, there is no better place to look than Hobson-Jobson. So, what’s the true definition of “pukka”? Well, firstly, the present-day British English slang use of “pukka” is a true definition. People all over Britain use the word, all the time, to mean solid, trustworthy, sure. Observe definition 3.b in the OED’s entry:

  • b. Brit. slang. Excellent, superb; ‘cool’.

  • 1991 Sun 13 June 23/6 Hey, man, that shirt’s pukka.

  • 1996 Observer 5 May (Review Suppl.) 7/6 Girls mug girls for jewellery or pukka clothes.

  • 2002 C. Newland Snakeskin xix. 255 ‘Yuh mum’s pukka,’ Davey chimed in, with so much passion I knew he wasn’t just being polite.

The article continues...

So, from Hobson-Jobson we learn that British pukka is a fairly literal loan from Hindi and Urdu (pakka), but that the English adopted it as a metaphor. Its literal sense survives in Indian terms like “pucca housing,” often used today to describe permanent residences which are less susceptible to natural disaster. [...] Hobson-Jobson reveals some of its cultural bias, however, in what it leaves out. There is no entry, for example, for pukka-sahib [see Wikipedia]. This term literally means a high-class European; a European might describe his friend thus if he wanted to suggest that he was a first-class gent. As we can read in EM Forster’s A Passage to India, however, pukka-sahib is also used satirically to refer to an attitude of prim, arrogant, magisterial aloofness: the ruling hypocrite’s pose. Henry Yule was a pukka-sahib for the ages.

Not living in the UK, and not having heard or met up with pukka I cannot say if the slang is commonly used among Londoners today, I imagine it's very familiar among the over 65s, and among youngsters who were growing up between the late 1980s and 90s. It would be lovely to hear somebody's first-hand experience.

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    Most people my age use pukka pretty much exclusively when making fun of Jamie Oliver, who described pretty much everything as being pukka. However, there is a brand of pie (savory pie, not sweet pie) called pukka pies, and I've had the odd one on occasion. – SGR Apr 20 '16 at 8:48
  • @SGR are you British then? Do you use pukka with both its meanings or only its slang meaning? Thanks for the comment! – Mari-Lou A Apr 20 '16 at 8:50
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    Yes, I'm British. I have never used pukka to mean anything unless it was making fun of or doing an impersonation of Jamie Oliver, or telling someone the name of a pie – SGR Apr 20 '16 at 8:51
  • Please post an answer, it's +1 from me if you would be so kind. Be warned, some fussy user might—mightargue that it doesn't answer the question. But I am delighted to hear first-hand experiences. Please add your age too. – Mari-Lou A Apr 20 '16 at 8:55
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From A Comparative Dictionary of the Indo-Aryan Languages

Pucca or pukka comes from Hindi pakka, "cooked, ripe," from Sanskrit pakva-, from pacati, "he cooks."

Pukka therefore means cooked, ripe, matured etc. in that sense.

Pukka may also mean solid, permanent, confirmed in Hindi just like concrete is used for that purpose in English, as in "I have concrete proof".

It is also the opposite of kutcha - crude, imperfect, or temporary. Kutcha has similar roots. Kutcha means raw, unripe.

See pukka vs kutcha housing:

Pucca houses are strong houses. They are made up of wood, bricks, cement, iron rods and steel. Flats and bungalows are pucca houses. Such houses are called permanent houses.

Kutcha houses are made up of wood, mud, straw and dry leaves. A hut is a kutcha house. Some people live at one place for a very short time. They build houses that can be moved from one place to another. Such houses are called temporary houses.


When did its slang sense, i.e. excellent, first-rate, first appear?

It had that sort of usage in Hindi for a very long time, but I have no links to show here. The British borrowed it from Hindi during their rule in India (1858 to 1947).

Is pukka known only in the UK? How common is it?

Not sure about its popularity in the UK, but I'm sure its common in India and among Indian English speakers. So wherever these Indians go, these words go with them.

Googling online it seems that pukka is mostly in connection with food, or is it a false impression? Can anything be really really pukka?

Of course, that's the main idea of pukka. "Khana pakaana" means to cook food. "Khana pakaao" is like [please] cook food.

  • I don't watch Jamie's program, so it's best I don't answer that particular question. – NVZ Apr 13 '16 at 5:06
  • Thank you for posting your answer, I was wondering though which question you are referring to in your comment above. The first two links in my question are from YouTube so you can hear Oliver pronouncing pukka, if that is of interest. – Mari-Lou A Apr 13 '16 at 6:47
  • @Mari-LouA I was referring to your second question. Apparently you've completely replaced it now. I don't have a pukka answer to your old and new second question, sorry. – NVZ Apr 13 '16 at 7:22
  • I did indeed change it, if I added another question/point I would incur the wrath of a couple of users! :) I was curious if viewers had possibly misinterpreted the meaning of pukka as Oliver used it. He uses it with the "old" sense: genuine, real, authentic; but nowadays it's also slang for "excellent". – Mari-Lou A Apr 13 '16 at 7:28
  • You can, if you want, use the links @Josh61 posted to support your answer. He has this habit of posting several good links on my questions and then leaving them there. I'm sure this discourages users from citing these sources themselves because they're afraid that they might be accused of copying, or piggybacking, which is absolute untrue. The links all appear on the first page if you Google "pakka etymology". – Mari-Lou A Apr 13 '16 at 7:33
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As a young Brit (early twenties), I have never used pukka to mean anything unless it was making fun of or doing an impersonation of Jamie Oliver, or telling someone the name of a pie.

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No discussion of "pukka" is complete without mention of Only Fools and Horses. I can't vouch for the definitions on the page, but "pukka", "lovely jubbly" and "cushty" all have Del's voice in my head because of their prominence in the show. Even Jamie Oliver hasn't changed that.

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I can't tell you exactly when pukka was first used as slang but it has been in common usage for as long as I can remember, so at least forty years.

Jamie Oliver has not invented any slang phrases, he just took well used (London/South East England) slang and used it to create an on screen persona.

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