Final Word

Guptas – from imperialists to emigrants


The now famous – or infamous – Guptas started out as Goppti in Sanskrit, meaning ‘protector’ or ‘governor,’ only to degenerate into a slang term for ‘an act so weird that it is bizarre.’

According to the website it is a well-known name from ancient India – the two greatest empires of ancient northern India having both been founded by persons named Chandragupta.

And, according to the Collins Dictionary, the period from the early 4th century to the late 6th century ad, that the Gupta ruled northern India, “is famous for achievements in art, science, and mathematics.

They were, however, also colonisers and conquered about 21 kingdoms, both in- and outside India. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, (EB) “they maintained an empire over northern- and parts of central and western India. The first ruler of the empire was Chandra Gupta I, who was succeeded by his son, the celebrated Samudra Gupta.

“The Gupta era produced the decimal system of notation and great Sanskrit epics and Hindu art and contributed to the sciences of astronomy, mathematics, and metallurgy,” the EB reports.

There is not total consensus amongst historians about all the details of the Gupta history. However, the empire gradually declined, due to many factors, like the substantial loss of territory and the growing authority of its own erstwhile feudatories, the invasion by the Ephthalite Huns, and the collapse of trade with the Roman Empire.

The empire finally collapsed in the 6th century into numerous regional kingdoms – the Gupta clan continuing to rule the Magadha region.

We could not find a source indicating when gupta was first recorded as a noun in English, but the oldest meaning we could find for it in some sources is “a generous philanthropist that offers to buy rounds of drinks for people because it makes them feel good.”


To what extent the meaning of the noun gupta (and the image of those associated with it) has changed, and degenerated in English, especially over recent years, is well illustrated by how it is recorded in the Urban Dictionary (UD).

And, it is a degeneration that started well before their migration to South Africa and all the controversies they got involved in here.

While the first definition given by the UD is also the philanthropist one, which probably derive from their ancient history, by 2006 it was, however, also recorded as “a derogatory word for people of Indian or Middle Eastern race.

In 2012 it was recorded as a term to describe an act or situation that is weird or bizarre, with the example given, reading: “That girl on the train keeps picking her nose while staring at me, man that is gupta.”

Final word

As the Guptas are apparently in the process of again emigrating from South Africa, many South Africans are likely to think the following two definitions recorded by the UD is the most appropriate:

  • “We're gonna be sick. Basically, we're just gonna gupta you guys,” recorded in 2010; and
  • “That Gupta who runs the Qwickie Mart (market) as a derogatory term for Indian traders.”
by Piet Coetzer

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