1. A social outcast: "Shortly Tom came upon the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard" (Mark Twain).
2. A Dalit.
[From Tamil paṟaiyan, member of a Dalit group of southern India traditionally performing as drummers and performing other tasks considered unclean (from paṛai, festival drum) and its Malayalam equivalent, paṟayan (from paṛa, festival drum).]
Word History: Pariah comes from Tamil paṟaiyan and its Malayalam equivalent paṟayan, words that refer to a member of a Dalit group of southern India and Sri Lanka that had very low status in the traditional caste system of India. (The plural of the Tamil word paṟaiyan is paṟaiyar. The symbol ṟ in this Tamil word transliterates a letter pronounced as an alveolar trill in some dialects of Tamil, while it transliterates a letter pronounced as an alveolar liquid in Malayalam.) Because of their low status, the paṟaiyar found work performing undesirable tasks considered ritually impure by members of the higher castes, such as disposing of the corpses of dead cattle and performing music and carrying out other functions at funerals. The term paṟaiyar is derived from paṟai (in Malayalam, paṟa), a name of a kind of drum played as part of certain festivals and ceremonies. Players of this drum have traditionally been drawn from the paṟaiyar group. The word pariah begins to appear in English in travelers' accounts of Indian society and at first refers specifically to the low-status paṟaiyar. One such occurrence of the word dates from as early as 1613. As British colonial power began to expand in India, however, the British began to use the word pariah in a general sense for any Indian person considered an outcaste or simply of low caste in the traditional Indian caste system. By the 1800s, pariah had come to be used of any person who is despised, reviled, or shunned.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2022 by HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.
Indo-European & Semitic Roots Appendices
Thousands of entries in the dictionary include etymologies that trace their origins back to reconstructed proto-languages. You can obtain more information about these forms in our online appendices:
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