Pajamas: the most worldly of words

We spent a wonderful evening with friends in Berlin. She is from Russia; he is from former East Germany; the kids are bilingual and will soon be trilingual when they start English lessons at school. The kids speak Russian with their mom, which is why I was so surprised that I could understand what they were saying when getting ready for bed. It was all made clear in the one word I could pick out: pajamas. I never thought of ‘pajamas’ as a Russian word. Of course, it is word that can be heard not only in Russian and English, but also sounds the same in German, French, Spanish, Italian, Danish and probably even more languages. Whether spelled pajamas, pyjamas, or pijamas, it seems to be one of the most international words there is. I’ve heard that ‘okay’ is the most widely understood word in the world, but perhaps pajamas is a close second.

Written as pajamas in the US, but quite the same thing as pyjamas in the UK, we called them pj’s at my house, but there does not seem to be an alternative in English. The question is what are the origins of this word that has been adopted around the world, that seems to have filled a gap not only in English, but in so many different languages? According to Wikipedia, the word originally derives from the Persian word پايجامه Payjama meaning “leg garment.” Thanks to the British presence in South Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries, both the word and the garment have become commonplace around the world. So it seems that both the garment and the word filled a gap in cultures and languages around the world – especially for the freelance translator, who always has the option of spending the whole workday, you guessed it, in their pajamas.

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