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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha

Ethnophaulisms on (and of) Tamils

4 April 2001

In four months, it will be 20 years since I left the University of Peradeniya for my postgraduate studies at the University of Illinois. It is no wonder that many things have changed in Sri Lanka and Eelam during the past two decades. But some things never change. One of these is the universal human trait of using derogatory language to despise another ethnic group or group with which one does not feel any fraternal bond.

While reading recent issues of the two Sri Lankan newspapers via internet, I spotted the following three phrases.

1. 'Catching Kallathonis' [in an article by Lt.L.G.A.Sooriyabandara, Directorate of Military Media, in Ceylon Daily News, Feb.26, 2001].

2. 'conflict kaakkas' (conflict crows), which appeared in C.A.Chandraprema's commentary entitled, 'Victor Ivan's Richard de Zoysa bombshell' [Island newspaper, March 2, 2001]

3. 'komis kaaka' - a term used by President Chandrika Kumaratunga to refer to a conspicuous private arms dealer, who funded the election campaigns of many ministers of the current Cabinet [editorial 'Bribe-busting and PA rewards', Island newspaper, March 18, 2001].

The derogatory words [kallathoni and kaaka, which has not entered into any standard English dictionary] in these three phrases brought back memories of a research paper I presented on December 17, 1979, at the 35th Annual Sessions of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Colombo. This paper has not been published in entirety yet. Thus, I wish to present this paper to the readers. It was entitled, 'Ethnophaulisms in our multi-racial Sri Lankan society'. I wrote this paper, after reading a brief report ['Ethnophaulisms and Ethnocentrism'] authored by Erdman B.Palmore of Yale University, which appeared in the American Journal of Sociology of January 1962.

Here is the complete text of my December 1979 presentation. When I presented this paper in Colombo, I was a temporary assistant lecturer at the Department of Biochemistry, Faculty of Medicine, University of Peradeniya.

Ethnophaulisms in our Multi-Racial Sri Lankan Society


Ethnophaulisms are derogatory terms used by the members of one ethnic group to describe the members of another. This word is derived from the Greek root, meaning to disparage an ethnic group.

In Sri Lanka, four ethnic groups are present, namely Sinhalese, Tamils (Sri Lankan Tamils and Indian Tamils), Moors-Malays and Burghers. Though social mixing among the ethnic groups occur at every stratum, the use of ethnophaulisms is also not very uncommon.

Erdman Palmore (1962) as well as Peter Rose (1964) have reported on the ethnophaulisms used in the multi-racial American society. Based on these lines, an attempt is made in this study to analyze the ethnophaulisms used in our multi-racial Sri Lankan society.


The derogatory terms, which are popularly used in Sri Lanka were listed and categorized.


The derogatory terms of popular usage are as follows: (Note: Order of priority is not adhered to.)

'Sinhala-modaya', 'Sinhala-kaadaya', 'Demala', 'Para-demala', 'Kallathoni', 'Kochchi', 'Thotakkaataan', 'Vadakkathaiyan', 'Thalaiya' (in campus parlor), 'Sohni', 'Kaaka', 'Thambila', 'Panankottai', 'Peethal Parangi', 'Lebbe', 'Naana', 'Chettiyar', 'Tiger = Kottiya', 'Thoppi-purati' etc.


In accordance with Palmore, the following generalizations may be made from the analysis of the existing vocabulary of derogatory language.

1. All racial and ethnic groups use ethnophaulisms to refer to other groups.

Of Sri Lankan ethnic groups, Sinhalese call Tamils, 'Demala', 'Para-demala', 'Thalaiya'; Tamils call Sinhalese, 'Sinhala-modaya', 'Sinhala-kaadaya'; Indian Tamils are called as 'Kallathoni' and 'Kochchi' by Sinhalese, and as 'Thotakkattan' and 'Vadakkathaiyan' by indigenous Tamils. Sinhalese call the Moors, 'Thambila', and Tamils call them as 'Sohni' and 'Kaaka'. Burghers are called as 'Parangiya'.

2. When the out-group is a different race, most ethnophaulisms express stereotyped physical differences.

The most common physical difference referred to is skin color. Other physical ethnophaulisms refer to the features of the head, mainly nose and eye. Children excel in insulting the members of another group, by referring to the physical differences. E.g: 'chappai-mookan', 'poonai-kannan'.

3. When the out-group is of the same general racial type, most ethnophaulisms express stereotypes of highly visible cultural differences.

Cultures may differ as to food, cloth, language and accent, common caste names and common occupations.

(a) food: For example, Sinhalese identify the Tamils as 'Thosai-vadai-nallennai'. Even the term 'Panankottai', a derogatory term referring to Jaffna Tamil and used by all other ethnic groups can be included in this category.

(b) cloth: Burghers from Batticaloa are somewhat shabbily dressed; hence, they are called 'Peethal-Parangi' by the other Tamil-speaking ethnic groups inhabiting that region.

(c) language and accent: Although Muslims use Tamil as their mother tongue, their accent varies considerably from that of orthodox users. Their pronounciation of some words like 'Amma' and 'Appa' are twisted to 'Umma' and 'Waapa'. These twisted terms are used by the Tamils to ridicule the Muslim ethnic group. Even some sentences like, 'Waapa sootha eeekara?' are used to undermine their unorthodox usage.

(d) common caste names and common occupations: The words like 'Lebbe', 'Naana' belonging to Muslim ethnic group, and 'Chettiyar' referring to the Indian business community, are the prominent ethnophaulisms belonging to this category.


The exhibition of ethnophaulisms occur in the following ways as well.

(1) The repeated reference to the adult servant boy of Indian origin, as 'Podiyan'.

(2) Portrayals of one group as shrewd trickster, another group as money lender, and inconsiderate businessmen, in the stage, novels and radio in the form of plays (for e.g: 'He comes from Jaffna').

Though not all caricatures are unfavorable, the stereotypical pattern portrayed has a tendency to remain stereotypes, and has to be resented, even when they seem favorable to the group described.

(3) The members of the minority groups often affect accents and tell jokes and stories in the gathering with majority community, at their own expense.

Humor is part of every society, and ethnic humor, with our high literacy rate, is very much a part of ours. But, as Rose points out, "the difficult is that, on hearing a joke or story about his group or another, the listener is often unsure whether the teller accepts or rejects the stereotypical characters and characteristics described." This is especially so, with inter-group humor, tinged with the bitterness of self-abasement.


It is inferred from the above brief analysis, that ethnophaulisms are used in Sri Lanka, by at least some members of all ethnic groups at one time or other. As Rose says, "their use becomes especially dangerous, however, in the hands of certain demagogues in periods of tension."

Further studies on the origin, the period of popular usage, expiring time of these ethnophaulisms will be of interest to the students of sociology.


Palmore, E. (1962). Ethnophaulisms and ethnocentrisms. American Journal of Sociology, vol.67, pp.442-445.

Rose, P. (1964). They and We: Racial and Ethnic Relations in the United States, Random House, New York, pp.102-106.

Postscript in 2001

I concluded my 1979 paper with the sentence, "Further studies on the origin, the period of popular usage, expiring time of these ethnophaulisms will be of interest to the students of sociology." Thus I add a few sentences now. In my paper I had then included the words, 'Tiger = Kottiya' referring to the Eelam Tamils by the Sinhalese. These had just come into use then, following the first proscription order delivered by J.R.Jayewardene on eradicating the Tamil Tigers in Jaffna. By then, the word 'Panankottai' had lost its popularity. But I remember well, in early 1960s, when we were school kids in Colombo, I had heard this word 'Panankottai' used even by Sinhalese beggars, when we refused to offer them small coins, while waiting for our school bus.

The word 'kochchi' popularised by A.E.Goonesinghe, the Sinhalese labor-leader and politician of 1920s to mid-1950s [who was also patron to the then young R.Premadasa] to disparage Indian Tamils and Malayalees also had become obsolete by 1960s.

Currently (since 1983), the English word 'terrorist' has become the most dominant ethnophaulism on Eelam Tamils used by the Sinhalese. It is interesting to see when this word will expire from usage. Also of interest to language specialists is the current popularity of the descriptive variants of the word, 'kaaka' [such as 'conflict kaaka' and 'komis kaaka']. There awaits a feast in this area for anyone interested in Tamil and Sinhalese language use.


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