How a German Town Became a Tamil Shrew

Well, not exactly a shrew, but a very sharp, savvy, aggressive woman!

emden

Ok, lets wind this story back!

In Tamil, ‘Emden’ (or ‘Yemden’, as pronounced in Tamil) is used to describe a person (usually female?) who gets things done, who brooks no interference or resistance or opposition.

‘Yemden’ is used in various different tonalities: If an old lady is using it to describe her favourite niece, it is in a tone of admiration for the go-getter whom no one can fool; if describing a not-favourite neighbour’s daughter, the tone is somewhat deprecatory—as in ‘what a badly-behaved girl’; if used for a much-disliked sister-in-law, the tone is definitely derogatory—as in ‘such an aggressive, uncouth person—bad addition to the family’.

When I was young, I thought it was a Tamil word, so casually was it used in conversations. It was much later that I learnt the etymology of the word. The origin of the term is convoluted:

On the night of September 22, 1914, in the early days of World War I, the German cruiser Emden entered the Madras Port. Harboured there were several oil tankers belonging to Burmah Oil Company (a British company). Capt. Karl von Muller who was in command of Emden, fired at them. Within minutes, five tankers went up in flames, destroying close to 3,50,000 gallons of fuel. 
And forever imprinting that night in the memories of the people of Madras and Tamilnadu, as a night of terror, of war, of aggression, of bombs, of fire. Capt. Muller was to later write: “I had this shelling in view simply as a demonstration to arouse interest among the Indian population, to disturb English commerce, to diminish English prestige.” He certainly succeeded in arousing interest, considering that more than a century later, the word ‘Emden’ continues to be a part of Tamil vocabulary!

Emden the town which lent its name to the ship is fairly non-descript. It is a seaport in the northwest of Germany, on the river Ems. In 2011, it had a total population of 51,528.

Emden the ship has a slightly more interesting (if bloody) history. SMS Emden [was a Dresden class light cruiser built for the Imperial German Navy, and armed with ten 10.5 cm guns and two torpedo tubes.

Emden spent most of her career in the German East Asia Squadron based in China. During World War I, Emden captured nearly two dozen ships. Apart from the attack on Chennai, Emden launched a surprise attack on Penang and in the resulting Battle of Penang, she sank a Russian cruiser and a French destroyer.

Capt. Müller then took Emden to the Cocos Islands, where he landed a bunch of sailors to destroy British facilities. There, Emden was attacked by an Australian cruiser  which inflicted serious damage and forced Müller to run his ship aground to prevent her from sinking. Out of a crew of 376, 133 were killed in the battle. Most of the survivors were taken prisoner. Emden‘s wreck was quickly destroyed by wave action, and was broken up for scrap in the 1950s.

–Meena

PS: I do sense a gender issue here, with a bias against strong women! Even the use of term ‘shrew’ is on the same lines–apologies!

PPS: Ironically, the city centre of Emden was almost completely wiped out as a result of Allied bombing in World War II, which destroyed nearly all historic buildings. The most severe bombing by the RAF took place on 6 September 1944, when roughly 80 percent of all houses in the city centre were destroyed. In the collective memory of the city, this date still plays an important role. 

PPPS: Wikipedia is the main source for information on the Emdens.

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