Why Is It Called Shampoo?

The Royal Pavilion Brighton

Shampoo is a word we use so frequently that you don’t really notice that is quite an odd word. In French the word is shampooing, which actually sounds more english. In German it is shampoo, and it is similar at least in sound in Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Arabic etc. How come?

The word “shampoo” has its origins in the Hindi word “champo” , which was derived from the Sanskrit word “champayati”, meaning “to massage” or “to knead”. So you might suppose it is one of the words English borrowed from India, like bungalow or tea. And that’s sort of true, but there’s more to it than that.

It is basically down to a Bengali entrepreneur named Sake Dean Mahomed. He was quite a character.

At a young age, he joined the East India Company’s Bengal Army, serving under British Captain Godfrey Baker. When Baker retired, Mahomed journeyed with him to Ireland, where he fell in love with and married a local woman named Jane Daly, breaking barriers. Interracial marriage is not something you see in Jane Austen novels. He moved to London and published his first book, “The Travels of Dean Mahomet,” in 1794, making him the first Indian author to write a book in English. That’s quite enough to get him into the history books – but he hadn’t finished yet.

In 1810, he launched the Hindostan Coffee House in London, England’s first Indian restaurant. So the British have him to thank for their much loved curry.

Whilst innovative, like a lot of first goes at an idea it didn’t prove to be particularly lucrative. Dean moved on to check out the opportunities in the new and fashionable seaside resort of Brighton. Even then Brighton was aquiring a reputation for the saucy and unconventional. Influences from Asia were also on trend, if not necessarily particularly accurate. The Royal Pavilion was inspired by the idea of what Indian and Chinese buildings looked like rather being anything like the real thing. But the interest in the oriental must have given Dean a caché he could cash in on.

In 1814, he opened the “Mahomed’s Indian Vapour Baths” in Brighton, introducing the therapeutic practice of “shampooing,” or Indian head massage, to the European health scene. This endeavor was a roaring success, catching the attention of the high society, including the Prince Regent, who appointed Mahomed as his personal “shampooing surgeon”. He became a celebrated figure, and he continued to be a dynamic presence in Brighton, fondly remembered as “Dr. Brighton”.

As a master of self-promotion, he even published a book, “Shampooing or, Benefits Resulting from the Use of the Indian Medicated Vapour Bath”. The book was filled with testimonials from his apparently satisfied customers. It is probably the book that spread the word, which would explain the French name for it.

Thus, “shampoo” as we know it today, a product used for cleaning the hair, got its name from this practice and the associated product that Sake Dean Mahomed introduced. Over time, the term evolved to mean a liquid or gel substance used to clean hair. It wasn’t until the 1950s that synthetic shampoos became commonplace.

I love this story. It shows how sometimes an individual can have a huge impact without even really trying. We would of course have hair cleaning products without him but they are more fun with an interesting name.

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