Is '-wallah' (as in chai-wallah) in any sense an offensive word?
February 19, 2014 5:41 PM   Subscribe

Let's say you've been having a lot of conversations about finding a way to get certain isolated or repetitive tasks done. Some things can be handled by automation, so they get a '-bot'; others get done by a human, so they get a '-wallah'. But is there some manner in which '-wallah' could be taken to be derogatory, offensive, appropriation, insensitive, etc?

I'm taking this term from how (as far as I understand) it's used in India, where it's the term for an individual that specializes in a certain task. The street vendor who sells tea on your corner with panache and a song is your local chai-wallah; someone who collects your dirty clothes, takes them away and brings them back cleaned is a dhobi (laundry)-wallah.

So it's sort of a similar usage to '-guy' or 'lady'; "Wow, your lawn guy does a great job" or "I've got too much work on my desk to go out for food right now, I'll just wait for the tea lady to come by with her cart later".

The opposite, where you've replaced a person with a machine, would be a -bot.


Many jobs were lost in the auto industry when the skilled humans that used to do the body welds were replaced with robots to do the same job; in with the weld-bots, out with the weld-wallahs.

OK, people, we need to figure out the situation with snacks in the breakroom. Do we put in a vending machine, or can we get a volunteer to keep the fridge stocked? Or in other words, do we want a snack-bot, or does someone want to be snack-wallah?

Outfits like TaskRabbit or Mechanical Turk are basically hire-a-wallah.

I had too much system administration grunt work to do, but they wouldn't hire a 2nd person; so I wrote a bunch of scripts and now it's being done by a bot.

Is using the term this way a bad thing?
posted by bartleby to Writing & Language (52 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Well, it means "by God" in Arabic, so I guess it depends on your intended audience. That's the only way I've ever heard it.
posted by celtalitha at 5:45 PM on February 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I get the context in Indian English, but it just sounds wonky if it's a non-Indian using it. Sort of flippant. Why can't you use something like snack-dude or snack-guy? Colloquially, I use dude as a non-gendered casual term and I wouldn't think twice about a reference like that. A formal version would be point person.
posted by viggorlijah at 5:53 PM on February 19, 2014 [6 favorites]

Google tells me "wallah" is from the Hindi suffix -vālā ‘doer’ (commonly interpreted in the sense ‘fellow’), from Sanskrit pālaka ‘keeper.’ Nothing to do with Allah.
posted by zadcat at 5:54 PM on February 19, 2014 [17 favorites]

We used to use tsar for this, as in "snack-tsar". Maybe that would run into cultural issues, too, but people usually saw it as the humorous "honor" that it was.
posted by ldthomps at 5:59 PM on February 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

This is called borrowing, and languages do it a lot. English, for example, got the -nik suffix (which does a similar thing, ish) that you see things like in "beatnik" and "no-good-nik" from Yiddish/Slavic.

So on the one hand, no, this isn't offensive, because it happens all the time, usually with bilingual speakers. Language come in contact, they borrow cool stuff from each other, everybody's happy.

On the other hand, if I were a Hindi/Indian English speaker speaker, I could see myself getting annoyed at watching a non-Hindi/Indian English speaker taking a suffix from my language (which they don't even speak!) and using it as they please, and eventually asking them to stop. And if that's what's happening in your situation, the polite thing to do would be to stop (and especially, stop without trying to explain to them why you think it's not offensive). If that's not the case, go right ahead, but (1) realize you might get some strange looks, and (2) if you do run into this situation, please, do stop.
posted by damayanti at 5:59 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm Indian and I wouldn't be offended. In fact -wallah is a fairly common suffix in British English, though less common now than it used to be. I guess the only problem I could see is it having a whiff of a colonial overtone when used by a white person speaking English, but I generally feel that it's fine to creatively repurpose bits of language.
posted by peacheater at 6:02 PM on February 19, 2014 [9 favorites]

Offensive, no. Appropriative will depend on your audience. I think not, but someone else might not like it. I think you have more of a worry over whether the people you speak to will understand you.

I've never heard "-wallah" used as a counterpoint to "bot" or anything like that. Which is a little confusing and not really how it's normally used. (And if you're not going to use it correctly, why bother?)

I've worked extensively around Indians and traveled in India and would be unlikely to use -wallah outside an India-specific context. So, chai-wallah, sure, mail-wallah, why, when we already have a perfectly good word for that?

It's a useful term and would be interesting if it migrated to the US, but it's just not widely used or understood at all, and it seems like a huge uphill battle to start using a term from some other place just because you think it's neat. Sort of like going around saying "boot" and "bin" and "plug-point" for no good reason.
posted by Sara C. at 6:02 PM on February 19, 2014

I agree with viggorlijah - why do you want to use this word / suffix? What do you consider to be the upside of you, an American (?), using an Indian suffix to describe people who do tasks (menial tasks, too, it mostly sounds like) in your American office?

I heard -walla used in context long before Slumdog Millionaire came out, and I don't think it's offensive per se, but I think generally when you are a non-minority participant in a dominant Western culture and you have to ask permission to use foreign language words in a culturally incongruent way, you know the right answer is "no."
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 6:03 PM on February 19, 2014 [10 favorites]

It's extra overhead and doesn't really add any extra meaning. If you're explaining "snack wallah means snack guy" it's easier to say snack guy.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 6:07 PM on February 19, 2014 [6 favorites]

But is there some manner in which '-wallah' could be taken to be derogatory, offensive, appropriation, insensitive, etc?


I'm taking this term from how (as far as I understand) it's used in India

If you're not Indian, it's entirely possible there's some context you're missing. If nothing else, I would think you were trying to come off as artificially worldly.

Another thing to consider is that it's very unlikely there's one monolithic answer to this - the only people who can tell you if it's offensive or not will be people who are Indian, and even then, they will only be able to tell you if it's offensive to them.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 6:09 PM on February 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

You ever see the scene in A Mighty Wind wherein Lars Olfen starts peppering his sentences with Yiddish? That's what you would sound like.
posted by griphus at 6:17 PM on February 19, 2014 [11 favorites]

I love the wallah suffix and would love to see it used it as you propose here in the US. That said, I was introduced to the word through dialog in books about English colonialists -- and it was always a blustery oblivious English military guy who used it. So, like someone else pointed out above, it may carry colonial/appropriationist baggage.

One of the things I like best about "wallah" is that it feels truly gender neutral to me. I know people are saying "dude" and "guy" are gender neutral -- heck, I'm a girl and start sentences to female friends with "dude" all the time. Still, I'd never look at a title like "snack guy" or "snack dude" (still less "P&L dude" or "budget guy") and feel like it could apply to me. And this from a person in her 30s who automatically described herself as a "girl" in the previous sentence.
posted by pocketfullofrye at 6:17 PM on February 19, 2014 [8 favorites]

Why not just use person? I kind of get what you're going for with wallah. It's a little cuter and more fun, but it does also sound kind of strange just picked up wholesale and inserted into an American context. I think the worry, too, is that to some people it might not have the connotation of guy, but rather boy, and that's hella offensive.
posted by MsMolly at 6:18 PM on February 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

Will 99-plus percent of people who hear/see you use this be offended by it in anyway whatsoever? Nope.

Is it worth taking the risk that you run up against anyone who does, knowing that once someone thinks of you as a racist or an imperialist or an appropriator, it's really hard to come back from that? Also nope.
posted by Etrigan at 6:21 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Could you use boss instead? Like, here is Spunweb, boss of the snacks! May her reign be gentle and her aim be true.
posted by spunweb at 6:24 PM on February 19, 2014 [16 favorites]

Ahh, I was just going to say "boss." I appoint people "boss" of various tasks all the time. It's more fun anyway. Snack boss. Boss of washing the dishes. GPS boss. (Interestingly it works equally well with seven-year-olds and actual adults.)
posted by goodbyewaffles at 6:27 PM on February 19, 2014 [9 favorites]

I wouldn't it exactly, but I know the historical context and I would find a white person using the word in the way you describe to be somewhere between pretentious and cluelessly culturally appropriating.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:33 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm Indian, and it would make me wince to hear a White person using '-wallah' because colonialist overtones like woah. it honestly puts me in mind of some crusty old British Army major talking about 'these native-wallahs, what?'

also, it isn't gender-neutral, the feminine form is '-wali.'

Oh, and for a bit of Hindi-speaking context. wallah isn't pejorative, but it can be dismissive, because it means you don't care enough to learn the person's name, at least among people you come into contact with regularly.

TL;DR English has the word you're looking for, '-wallah' is not it.
posted by Tamanna at 6:50 PM on February 19, 2014 [49 favorites]

Also, yes, seconding whoever said using it would come off as pretentious and pompous at best.
posted by Tamanna at 6:58 PM on February 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

i'm voting against this not because i have any vote on it being offensive or not offensive, and that's been covered above anyways, but just because "clever" stuff like this bugs me.

Similar to how any joke you need to explain out to nearly all audiences isn't a funny joke, this isn't a clever bit of terminology or suffix if you have to explain it out to most people.

You just end up sounding like some abed from community type guy or something, in the worst way possible. It screams try-hard and "clever". It's like, a pretentious inside joke for the people you know who already know what you mean.

Stack that ON TOP of the kind of stuff Tamanna said and i think you have two very good reasons not to do this.
posted by emptythought at 7:02 PM on February 19, 2014

I like it and I'd use it. It sounds funny. Snackwallah is awesome.
posted by codswallop at 7:09 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a white American, and the only time I've heard "wallah" is in Agatha Christie novels, where it's used by the bloviating English colonel who wants to talk about how life is better in India because the natives are properly obsequious to the white colonial rulers.

So that would be my context for a white Westerner using it.
posted by jaguar at 7:13 PM on February 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

For the reasons given by Tamanna and jaguar, I suspect it might be okay for an Indian to do this, but a white person? Not so much.
posted by Salamander at 8:06 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, languages borrow words from each other all the time. But normally it happens organically, because of contact between the two languages over a period of time. Deciding individually to spice up your own speech by introducing a word from another language is usually gonna come off as pretentious/cutesy/affected at best, I think.

And in this case, I think it's important to remember that the historical relationship between the Anglophone world and India has been one of colonialism. It's hard to get away from that.
posted by my favorite orange at 8:32 PM on February 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't think it's offensive, and it's certainly not worth worrying about.

That said, I'd only start using the -wallah suffux if the borrowing is natural and limited. If it's just something you read about somewhere, your use of it will probably just be awkward and forced.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 8:37 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Upon reflection, I would say don't use it. Either people won't know what you mean, which defeats the point, or they will, which can go rather spectacularly sideways. I know that my reaction to hearing a White Person calling someone '-wallah' would be 'who the fuck do you think you are?' because that word is loaded coming out of a White person's mouth. and even if I didn't say anything, I'd still think of you as a bit of a stuck-in-a-timewarp Empire apologist, and is that really an impression you want to be giving?
posted by Tamanna at 8:59 PM on February 19, 2014 [6 favorites]

I think it's an interestingly productive morpheme, and for example, it's probably fine to be pleasantly surprised upon meeting someone with the last name Gaslightwallah that such a transient historical status has been preserved as a social designation. But in view of other colonialist appropriations, polite admiration for the morpheme's productivity is about as far as I'd want to go without dead certainty regarding how I'd be perceived. Incidentally, I think 'doer' is a limited translation, because the same morpheme shows up in Dilliwala, Poonawala, etc. It's more like -er, as in both Baker and New Yorker. So if you're only using it for random, unexpected, marginal, low-paid occupational niches, that does seem like stereotyping with not so great connotations.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:10 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

A lot of people will have absolutely no idea what you're saying, so that's not useful for them.

To those who only vaguely understand that -wallah is something Indianish, you may accidentally seem to be perpetuating ignorant stereotypes of India.

To those who have a more nuanced knowledge of the term, you may either seem faux-colonial, dismissive, or appropriating.'re betting on how many? people who will both a) know that you're not being racist and that you are using the term with a reasonable level of neutrality AND b) think it's clever?

If you're dying to be cute, maybe go with -monger. Like fishmonger, cheesemonger...snack-monger. Or, any of the suggestions in the same vein as "boss."
posted by desuetude at 9:23 PM on February 19, 2014 [7 favorites]

I just wanted to comment on desuetude's remark about using -monger. It tends to be used in the context of someone who sells something. So referring to your snack vendor as a snack-monger or a pornographer as a smut-monger would be just fine, having a lawn-monger is going to be problematic unless they're selling turf. Not to say that you can't repurpose the word, but you're going to attract pedants.
posted by ninazer0 at 9:38 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

It sounds really contrived and artificial to me. It's not like its grown out of some slang that you've grown used to. If just feels invented.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:55 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

> I just wanted to comment on desuetude's remark about using -monger. It tends to be used in the context of someone who sells something.

Very true. And I considered that, but the examples that the OP were also of service-selling people, so, I thought it parallel-enough. But yeah, the "boss"-type titles might be a better bet.
posted by desuetude at 10:35 PM on February 19, 2014

What about "monitor", a la kindergarten and hall monitor, line monitor, milk monitor, etc?
posted by Sara C. at 10:41 PM on February 19, 2014

Since it's not offensive, I encourage you to continue your use of the term. People may be momentarily confused the first time they hear it, but the context will reveal the meaning and they will have learned a new word (as I did when I read your post).

I would be very grateful if this caught on and "wallah" muscled "Dude" right out of daily conversation.
posted by she's not there at 10:55 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

It is not used or seen as offensive in India.

In the UK, it definitely would carry colonial and slightly pejorative overtones among the older, upper middle class generation that still remember colonial and newly post-colonial India. It has a similar sort of meaning as 'flunky' or, because it is used most commonly in reference to civil servants, 'faceless bureaucrat.' In effect, it served as a class marker - if you used the term 'wallah' you were the kind of person who gave, but generally didn't take, orders. Used about oneself, it is self-deprecating. Hence. Until recently its use has been getting less common.

That said, Hinglish is becoming much more of a thing and India is becoming an economic and cultural superpower and India's influence on the English language outside India is growing: with it, 'wallah' is coming back into fashion. As such, especially where people are trying to make an Indian connection, 'wallah' is being used in the way you describe (i.e. as a substitute for 'guy' or 'lady' or 'seller').

A good example of this changing use in the UK is here:
As part of Alchemy Festival 2014, Shake the Dust & Southbank Centre presents ‘Design Wallah’ – an open submission showcase of South Asian contemporary design.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:13 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're interested in another possible alternative, consider the German 'Meister'. Laundrymeister, gardenmeister, snackmeister. Isn't German übercool these days anyway?
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:19 AM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Dude. I'm offensive and desi. Here's what it is:

The Arabic is wul-LAH! That has nothing to do with the Hindi/Urdu stuff. Just same letters kinda when u put it into English.

The desi wala is kinda like 'doer' or 'one' or 'dude' basically.

The way this is used offensively is that you take something someone does and reduce them to that one thing.


Basically lower socio-economic class people who are reduced to that ONE thing is the common usage in the homeland.

It can be applied to anybody, but grasps just one feature (unflattering feature) about that person and uses that to identify them.

Kinda offensive to refer to someone like that in front of them.
posted by hal_c_on at 12:57 AM on February 20, 2014 [11 favorites]

That was kind of the impression I got, hal_c_on. From my (admittedly quite limited) perusal of Indian literature and films, it seems as if the '-wallah' suffix reduces people to the function they perform for you.

Like, a chai-wallah is the person who supplies you (who is, by implication, a social rung above them) with tea. That is their defining feature. It's almost dehumanizing, as if the person is not an individual, but a resource.

Unless I've misunderstood the nuance, it seems a rather problematic term for a non-Indian person to be using.
posted by Salamander at 1:22 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

MuffinMan, it isn't offensive in India when used by Indians to each other. Used by a Westerner to an Indian? At best ignorant, given the colonial history, and yes, offensive in some respects, because it does have an element of classism to it.

on preview, what Hal_c_on says.
posted by Tamanna at 1:24 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Agree entirely, Tamanna. I would never have said it, but Indians around me used it unselfconsciously.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:33 AM on February 20, 2014

oh, also, bartleby, one more datapoint, although this may just be me... I only ever use chaiwallah et al when I'm speaking Hindi or Hinglish, because they just sound very out of place when used in an otherwise fully English sentence, like I was fumbling for how to say it right. I imagine it'd sound even odder coming from a non-Desi.
posted by Tamanna at 1:39 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

My husband grew up in India. Our kids called his uncle taxi-wallah during our second last trip when he gave us a lift in his car. (They were very young and still learning about Indian culture and language.) I thought his head would literally explode he was so angry. So yeah, not so much on the wallah. My husband and I use it sort of self mockingly in private when I ask him if I'm his dhobi-wallah when he can't find his socks etc....but it's actually a pretty de-personalising term and I wouldn't use it about a person I knew.

The only time I'd use it would be...."hey Mr Taff, can we find a chai wallah and get some tea because I'm tired and grumpy and I'm going to smack you up the back of the head if you don't slow down and let me and the kids rest."*

*may or may not be the transcript of an actual conversation.
posted by taff at 2:15 AM on February 20, 2014 [9 favorites]

Strikes me as contrived and pretentious.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 6:26 AM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think the only way it's really okay to use this is if you also plan to acquire a monocle and a pith helmet. Which is to say, the colonial implications are so strong that I don't think they can be separated.
posted by corb at 7:03 AM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's not really offensive but I'm struggling to see why you can't use an english word instead. It's just confusing especially because of wallah vs -wallah. And will people even get why you're using it? IDK. don't use it.
posted by hejrat at 9:09 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

>Also, yes, seconding whoever said using it would come off as pretentious and pompous at best.

Geez, I hope not...
posted by sagwalla at 9:39 AM on February 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

I love it, but my concern would be: when this term is used in its natural context, is it egalitarian or applied only to those considered to be of a lower socio/economic class? If you'd say CEO-wallah as well as dhobi-wallah, then it seems fine. But if a wallah is always someone lower than you, then yeah, it could be considered pejorative. This is why -tsar works so well: it's an upward honorific, so you're not placing anyone below you, and it's well over-the-top so everyone understands it as humorous while still making it clear that the [thing]-tsar is in charge of [thing].
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 9:54 AM on February 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

You people are language-wallahs [humorous connotation intended, waiving colonialist overtones].

How about the prep school slang in A Prayer for Owen Meany where the students call a specialist is anything "master": an unfortunate kid with pimples is Zit Master, Owen Meany is Sarcasm Master.

I, for one, welcome my Language Masters....
posted by bad grammar at 11:10 AM on February 20, 2014

How about "lackey" instead?
posted by hades at 11:30 AM on February 20, 2014

I'm Indian-American. If someone, white or otherwise, referred to me as an anything-wallah, the only relevant question would be whether I could manage to refrain from punching them. It'd actually probably be worse if another Indian said it, because they'd be very conscious of the lower status they'd be imposing on me. If I heard someone here referring to someone else as an anything-wallah, I would wonder what the fuck their problem was. Mine is, you may guess, very much a vote for "please, please don't".
posted by Errant at 5:38 PM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

You could use slinger too. Like as in gunslinger, snack slinger, ad slinger, text slinger...

Plus if someone forgets the snacks you can tell them they've forgotten the face of their father.
posted by spunweb at 7:04 AM on February 21, 2014

> How about "lackey" instead

No. Nobody wants to be called a lackey. in American English, at least, a lackey is an inferior.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:59 AM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I mean, the real question is, as noted above, are you looking to have a word for the guy who does something? Or are you looking to have a word for the person who is hierarchically your servant who does that thing? The two have very different questions. The offense in the latter isn't the word, precisely - it's in the notion that someone is inferior to you, which in many cultures, is taken as very offensive. Hierarchical cultures may vary.
posted by corb at 9:17 AM on February 21, 2014

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