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I was looking through a book about Indian English (Sahibs, Nabobs, and Boxwallahs: A Dictionary of the Words of Anglo-India) and I noticed the following definition (edited lightly):

Cherry-merry: Baksheesh. A present of money. [19th century; etym. obscure] [OED; Partridge, Dict. of Slang etc. 1979]

Cherry-merry bamboo: Literally, ‘a present of bamboo' : A thrashing; a sound drubbing. [19th century] [Partridge, Dict. of Slang, 1979]

Most of the definitions provide a concise etymology, but this one didn't. So I referred to the given source, Partridge, and I couldn’t find any extra information. (I don't have access to the OED, but the entry implies that Oxford doesn't know either.) It’s also in a number of other dictionaries, but none of them offer any clues as to the word’s etymology. 'Cherry-merry bamboo' is present in many dictionaries, too, and one of them notes that the 'cherry-merry' part is likely used ironically.

'Cherry-merry' seems to have a couple of other meanings, like 'convivially tipsy' and (somewhat doubtfully) 'girl who just had sex for the first time'. Some of the entries hazard etymologies for the other meanings, but they're pretty useless when it comes to the one that means 'tip.'

The Oriental Interpreter suggests that 'cherry-merry' is used "chiefly, if not solely," in India, too, and it is included also in an 1891 dictionary of Australian slang. Unfortunately, as I realized later, it's under the Anglo-Indian slang section, so it's actually not that helpful.

Wiktionary, linked above, notes that it's obsolete (I agree), and provides the quotation:

"That not proper business," said Croke Sahib. "What for I give cherry-merry?"
1858, Michael Rafter, The Rifleman (page 232)

I also found it in a 1999 play, where one character calls another a "towsing, cherry-merry bamboo!" The play takes place on the Indian Subcontinent, though. Venturing into the non-English results, one dictionary defines 'cherry-merry' as 'Geschenk in Geld', and says that 'cherry-merry bamboo' was actually Pakistani slang.

So what could be the origin of 'cherry-merry' to mean 'tip,' or 'baksheesh' in 19th-century Indian English slang? And are there any citations of it being used organically outside of the Indian subcontinent?

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  • Did "cherry" ever have the same meaning? If so, this is likely just a case of reduplication.
    – alphabet
    Commented Apr 13, 2023 at 17:47
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    Green's Dictionary of Slang gives a number of references, but no etymology, although fill his vessel to overflowing, but gave an additional quantity which they call cherry, merry perhaps comes closer than other entries. Commented Apr 13, 2023 at 19:42
  • I hear a distorted cherimoya, custard apple, an Inca fruit exported and farmed all over the tropics. An unexpected newbie in India with a funny name? Also, Baksheesh is standard for alms and handouts, but originally Turkish->Egyptian for tip. Then a cherry-merry would be not just gratis, but a little something extra. Commented Apr 14, 2023 at 1:09
  • I suspect this is a corruption of "cheery-merry," modified to sound like a reduplication and turned into noun, as mentioned in the first dictionary you linked. But this is just speculation; that dictionary has a question mark before the supposed etymology.
    – alphabet
    Commented Apr 14, 2023 at 2:13
  • It seems like this term isn't too popular in India either; I have trouble finding attestations online.
    – alphabet
    Commented Apr 14, 2023 at 2:21

2 Answers 2

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Background : There are two patterns in Indian English and Indian languages that are relevant here.

1.1 Intensifier : In Indian languages, words, especially adjectives, can be repeated to emphasize and intensify them. For example, "garam-garam" (Hindi) and "chudah-chudah" (Tamil) literally translate to "hot-hot" when converted to English, but they just mean "very hot". Likewise, "gori-gori" in Hindi becomes "white-white" or "fair-fair" which means "very white" or "very fair".

1.2 Generalization : A rhyming suffix is often added to make it more general. For example, "Chai" means "tea", and "Chai-vai" means "something like tea." So, "get me Chai-vai" means "get me something to drink". Likewise, "English-Vinglish" is a movie about a Mother trying to learn English. "I am going to school to learn English-Vingish" just means "I am going to school to learn English and all that jazz".

So, what about "Cherry-Merry?"

2.1 It is a generalization rhyme of cherry here. When somebody is giving or asking for "baksheesh", it means a little more than the agreed payment or a tip.

Here, the "cherry" could be like "cherry on top of the cake", in which the cherry represents a little extra on the cake (though not exactly the same exact idiom)

Generalizing this, it becomes "take this cherry-merry" to indicate that the payment will include a little extra or "baksheesh" or tip.

2.2 Alternatively, this could be a generalization rhyme for "merry," as in, "here is some more, you can go make merry" which could occur when the payment is between higher-ups and a middle-man is getting a little something. (A little like tipping the Amazon delivery agent.)

2.3 The list of alternatives is endless, so I will end with this one: It could be a corruption of "teri-meri" , which is a shortening of a Hindi saying that "what is yours is mine too". Perhaps the Englishman could have heard like "Cherry-Merry" instead, and decided to use it to mean "take a little of what is mine", that is, a tip.

2.4 Though the actual etymology is lost in the mists of time, these are some ways it could have come about. It's likelye that when it was "first" used by an Englishman, he used it blindly, without thinking about the word's derivation. So when it entered into common use, it had been forgotten by then.

Some Concluding thoughts :

The Universe of Possibilities : What the original words were for cherry and merry, we might never know- we can't even know for sure which language it came from. There's a long history of English corruptions of Indian phrases: Tamil "Kasu" has become English "Cash"; Tamil "kattumaram" has become "Catamaran"; etc. Unless it's documented somewhere, we'll never know the exact connection. Unfortunately, it looks like "Cherry-Merry" was not documented, and hence the etymology is lost to us.

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  • "Cherry-merry" dates to the 19th century, but "cherry on top" seems more recent.
    – alphabet
    Commented Apr 14, 2023 at 11:13
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    Really, very beautifully done. I'm not going to accept it right away, but if this is the closest I get, I'll check it. Thank you for the answer! Commented Apr 14, 2023 at 12:32
  • I agree with that , I should have been more clear there , I did not know a short succinct way to say that it is not Exactly that Saying , just something like it , @alphabet , more-over , I had a couple more alternatives which I had earlier removed to just put in (2.2) , which is moved to (2.4) after edit , though at the Expense of making the Answer longer.
    – Prem
    Commented Apr 14, 2023 at 12:33
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    Please include all sources you are citing with links. Thanks
    – Gio
    Commented Apr 14, 2023 at 15:17
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The OED's entry is from 1889 - 130 years closer than the present to any origin:

cherry-merry, adj.

Etymology: perhaps < cheery + merry; possibly only a jingling combination.

‘Cherry-merry, a present of money. Cherry-merry-bamboo, a beating.

Anglo-Indian.’ Slang Dict. -- colloquial or slang. Merry: esp. from conviviality.

[1602 T. Dekker "Blurt, Master-Constable" sig. B Trickes? trickes? kerry merry buffe.]

1769 J. Hall-Stevenson Yorick's Sentimental Journey Continued IV. 27 That every convivial assistant should go home cherry-merry.

It will be noted that the 1602 quote is in square brackets to indicate that it is tentative and there is ~150 years before the phrase arises again.

The play, "Blurt, Master-Constable" is a comedy set in Ireland. In the online version, there is a glossary, in which we have:

kerry merry buff: a loud but not severe blow.

(OED has "buff" as a boxing term meaning a blow)

The context is that the heroine, Violetta, has just announced her determination to have Fontinell as a lover and that she has done this within the hearing of the man who hoped to be that lover, Camillo, and his friend, Hipolito. Violetta then leaves and

HIPOLITO: Tricks, tricks, kerry merry buff! How now, lad, in a trance?

CAMILLO: Strange farewell. After, dear Hipolito. 0, what a maze is love of joy and woe!

The 19th century British English word that might encompass the conviviality, the bribe and the blow would be "jolly"

We had a jolly time

A jolly -> jollification -> 1971 ‘W. Haggard’ Bitter Harvest xiv. 145 It would be a splendid wedding, the sort of big jolly Charles Russell enjoyed.

and as an emphatic adverb "a jolly good beating"

All authorities agree that the source of the phrase is lost in the mists of antiquity but the possibilities are:

  1. The "kerry/cherry" may be simply a "jingling"

  2. Despite the lack of capitalisation, "kerry" may be a reference to something that was then thought typical of County Kerry.

  3. It is a corruption of an Indian native phrase.

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