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I have recently seen the noun mem-sahib, used to refer a white foreign woman living in India, in two different books. The books are Indian Passion and Nowhere in Africa.

I have not found any information about the use of mem-sahib in other countries, but in the latest book, I have seen this word many times even though the story happens in Kenya. If mem-sahib comes from a mix between English plus Hindi and Urdu, why did people use the word in Kenya if they had their own words like bwana to refer to a boss, for example? Did they really use it, and was it common in other countries?

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    I learned the word from reading, and I imagine most readers outside India will recognize it as a term from the British Raj. But I've never heard anybody use it in conversation, and my sense of what it means is nowhere near as detailed as what you describe. Feb 12 at 17:37
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    There was a significant Indian population in Kenya at the time of the British empire and subsequently, which seems a likely reason if indeed it was used.
    – Stuart F
    Feb 12 at 17:40
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    Mem-sahib was also used in the UK as a humorous reference to one's wife. It was also common in Tanganyika, and Uganda, as well as other parts of the British Commonwealth and influence in Asia. Burmese Days (George Orwell) has "The position for which Nature had designed her from the first, that of a burra memsahib."
    – Greybeard
    Feb 12 at 19:51
  • Irish perspective : I vaguely recognise that word from some old movies about India and the British Raj, but like @JohnLawler I’ve never heard anyone use it in conversation. I don’t think many people here are familiar with it.
    – k1eran
    Feb 12 at 20:58
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    Memsahib was used to refer to or address White women in India, especially during the period of British rule, or sometimes to refer to or address upper-class Indian women. [old-fashioned]. (Collins)
    – user 66974
    Feb 12 at 22:28

2 Answers 2

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To add to the above, the term isn't just a relic of the Raj. It's still used in India, and quite commonly at that, to refer to a female superior. It's usually pronounced "Mem-Saab", literally Madam-Sir. A female Sir, if you will.

It's a sort of title as well as a form of address. A man might refer to his wife by that term when speaking to the domestic help. Can you take this to Mem Saab please?

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    But is it a term used outside India? That is what the question is asking.
    – Laurel
    Mar 21 at 21:12
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    In places with a significant Indian population, quite possibly.
    – Barque
    Mar 21 at 21:31
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    You should add some examples of usage outside India if you can find any. Also, sahib seems to come from Arabic ṣaḥiba, "to accompany" and would therefore be unrelated to "sir" (even if used similarly).
    – Laurel
    Mar 21 at 21:38
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    Perhaps Sahib does come from Arabic but in north India, it's just the vernacular equivalent of Sir.
    – Barque
    Mar 21 at 21:42
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It was rarely used outside the Indian subcontinent unless used by workers enslaved by the British from Indian subcontinent. It is one of the words which was carried on by people who worked for, or were enslaved, by the British in the Indian subcontinent (including Afghanistan.) In my opinion, the word "mem" has its roots in the word "ma'am" and was later transformed into "memsahib." However, as it probably originates from old (Hindi/Urdu/Pashto), it is really hard to pinpoint.

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  • Your answer would be better as a comment as it does not address the question. That said, the OED agrees with your suggested origin: Etymology: < mem, variant of ma'am n.1 + sahib n. (as postmodifying title). It is first recorded in 1832.
    – Greybeard
    Mar 21 at 21:04
  • Thanks for confirming and the suggestion!
    – Sumanta
    Mar 22 at 8:02

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