The history of the rice paddy (or, how a nonsensical term makes sense!)

A reader wrote on one of my blogs the other day. He was most affronted that I used the term rice paddy, and begged me to do my research before I hit the keyboard. It brought a smile to my lips. You see, had he done his research before hitting enter – and posting a public condemnation of not only the use of the term, but those who pen it – he would perhaps have slowed the weight of his little pinky as it slammed in full fury onto the ‘return’ key.

His main angst was that the word paddy had only one meaning, and that is rice with a husk. Therefore, he said, to say rice paddy, you are actually saying rice rice, which he concluded was nonsensical.

I wrote a response to him, as the last thing I wanted was a national debate on something that could be easily explained. Sure, I did think twice before hitting ‘enter’, as I didn’t want to come across as a smart arse, but it’s funny; I research lots of silly little facts that I tuck away for trivia nights. And this one? I had wanted to get the spelling right when I wrote Bali Soul Journals, so I actually had researched whether it should be padi or paddy*. This is what I shared with Mr Incredulous; for no other reason than the history of the term is interesting. (I’ve expanded a little bit more on it here.)  (*If only I had researched a couple of other words!)

The origin of words is fascinating. We spew them out of our mouths daily and slam them all over the internet without giving them much thought. Generations from x to z are reinventing words and making them up as they go. So I thank my reader, for giving an opportunity to explore the origin and the meaning of the words paddy and padi.

To understand paddy, we need to explore the word padi. And this is where the reader got it quite wrong. He assumed that paddy was simply a direct translation of padi. It is. And it isn’t.

Paddy has two meanings (pertaining to rice – it also means police wagon, white person and describes an Irishman (offensive)); padi has only one meaning.

The first word is English; the second is Malay and Indonesian. And this is the critical point. Both words are distinctly different, by virtue of the fact that they are in different languages.

Padi originated in Malay, the origin of modern-day Indonesian. There are a few estimations of when the word emerged, but it was somewhere between 1590 and the 1620.

When spoken in an Indonesian or Malay sentence, padi always means rice with a husk. But the English word paddy as already noted, has several meanings. Context is very important for this word.

The first meaning is the same as padi. So, I can point to unhusked rice and say, “There is some paddy.” In Indonesian, I would say, “Itu padi.” Or, I can mix it up and say, “There is some padi,” emphasising the word in italics to indicate I mean it in Indonesian. I would also change the pronunciation in this case, to puddee, as a is always pronounced as uh in Indonesian.

The second English meaning for paddy, is: a field submerged in water, usually for the purpose of growing rice. (Webster dictionary.) This cannot be translated back to padi. When paddy is meant in this context, the translation to Bahasa Indonesia is sawah. So when you say, in an English sentence, rice paddy, you are specifically referring to a field submerged in water that is used for growing rice.

This is one of the interesting things between English and Indonesian, making it very tricky for those learning either language. Indonesian often has a specific word for everything, while English often has many meanings for one word.

For example: there are three words in Indonesian for rice, whereas in English, rice is rice no matter how it comes, unless you are referring to its colour or type.

Malay/Indonesia differentiates between all stages of a grain’s life: nasi is cooked rice, beras is uncooked rice suitable for cooking, and padi is rice in a husk. If you ask for ‘nasi’ at a supermarket, you will be led to the cooked food section!

Likewise with paddy. Context in English is critically important. Translating it to Indonesian is also not as simple as it appears.

So, back to my reader’s dismay. If I said, Saya pergi ke nasi padi, I would be confusing to understand because I would be saying, I am going to (the) cooked rice rice with husk. You simply cannot translate paddy to rice field and then get padi. But you can translate paddy to unhusked rice and get padi.

The original phrase may well have been paddy field, which would likely appease my reader. However, a quick consult with English and American dictionaries shows that both the English and Americans accept that a rice paddy  is a field where rice is grown. Many dictionaries note both phrases. If paddy is translated using Toggletext, it becomes sawah, or rice field.

[Technically, the translator should not assume that a field is a sawah, as field has many translations in Indonesian (Lapangan, ladang and padangrumpat – places where ceremonies are held, cleared fields and pasture fields. Again, Indonesian often uses specific words to describe specific states of a similar thing, whereas in English, we add adjectives to give context.)]

rice definition

Therefore, while it might seem odd to a seventeenth century Malay speaker’s ears (if a) he could not understand English and b) tried to translate ‘padi’, if he didn’t know the correct English spelling), it is acceptable…but only in English.

The final observation is whether it is correct to say rice terraces. In English, that is certainly okay, as you are describing the terraces. In Indonesian or Malay, they typically do not make this distinction and would simply called them sawah. (Or petak, if needing to give more description, particularly if there was a flat sawah as well as one on a hill nearby.)

So, there you have it. You can say paddy field, which literally means rice with a husk field, or you can say rice paddy, meaning rice field. So long as you are speaking in English, both are correct and have been accepted in English dictionaries.

I hope that this can allay any dismay in future when you hear native English speakers referring to rice fields as rice paddies! I agree with my reader. It always pays to do your research before hitting the keyboard and publishing. But sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. So I will remain ever vigilant on this journey of the English and Indonesian/Malay languages, because sometimes what you originally think makes sense, actually makes little sense at all!


Clare is author, designer and co-photographer of Bali Soul Journals, and author, illustrator and designer of The Bootongs of Bali. She is also publisher and designer of Looking for Borneo, and designer and author of the eBook Kitty’s Lesson. To read more about her books, please visit www.creatavisionpublishing.com. Free delivery in Indonesia. All books are available on Amazon.com also.


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