“‘In vino veritas’ they say
The idiot truths of the loosened tongue
Regrets will flood the sober day
For all the lyrics left unsung….”
From Bowl, I’d Rather Bowl by Bachchoo
What would Samuel Johnson, inventor of English dictionaries, confronted with the latest lexical inventions have made of words like “Google”, “download” or even “computer”? What would he have made of the answer “I am good” when he asked how some teenager was? The standard riposte of the linguistically orthodox today is “I asked after your health, not your moral quality!”
Perhaps “orthodox” should be replaced by “reactionary”, because language evolves and those, like myself, who refuse to adapt, can justifiably be labelled thus. For instance, gentle reader, I would never use the words “awesome” or “humungous” and admit I have never understood the adjective “cheesy”. I know that Americans say “my bad” to mean they were wrong about something but it’s ignorant and ugly — as when Donald Trump says “bigly”.
Yes I know, language evolves and the arbiters of usage, compilers of dictionaries agree as they overhaul them each year adding new words and weeding out the unused dead.
Some omissions appear to be political. The Oxford University Press has removed from its Junior Dictionary, aimed at the youngest reader, the words “aisle”, “bishop”, “chapel”, “empire” and “monarch”. Behind their omission is the compilers’ assumption that junior readers either won’t come across these words or perhaps they believe that they shouldn’t come across them. What then of the young reader of history? No empires? No monarchs?
The said “junior” may not need to know what a bishop or a chapel is but they will, in today’s world, come across aisles in cinemas or even on an aeroplane (sorry, is that word not in the dictionary anymore?)
Some words deserve this obsolescence. Webster’s dictionary recently removed “frulescent”, “hodad”, “snolygoster” and “nephoscope”. I don’t suppose, gentle reader, that you, like myself, don’t know what these words mean or in what context they were used — but they sound fun. Perhaps they should be used one last time in these pages thus: “I was examining this frulescent snolygoster with my nephoscope and concluded that it should be boiled and eaten at Hodad!” Geddit?
Words are not immortal. Those above died naturally and some are deservedly put to death. I haven’t checked in the dictionary but in contemporary usage we have abolished, for instance, what popular argot calls “the N word”. The phrase is popular in journalism. The insulting British epithet, the shortening of the perfectly proud word — “Pakistani” — is known as “the P word”. So also, in some self-conscious journals, though not as yet in the spoken exchanges of every level of UK society, there are “F words” for the sexually explicit and “C words” for the female anatomical.
It can’t be a matter for argument that some insulting words, even when in their social and historical context were not meant as such, should be relegated to the dustbin of history. My grandmother and her Parsi matron friends would, for instance, refer to all Hindu servant maids, whatever these women’s names happened to be, as “Ganga”. It became not a proper noun in their usage, but a common noun for all Hindu women who cooked or washed or did other services in their households. And it was thus with the poor Christian girls who came to do menial jobs in the middle-class houses of western Indian cities. My grandmother and her associates referred to them as “that Mary”. The young lady’s name may have been Immaculata or anything else, but in her subservient state she was referred to as “the Mary”.
Yes, gentle reader, I am ashamed on behalf of grandmother’s ignorant, discriminatory Parsi perceptions and language but plead now that times have changed. My mother and her generation, without analysis or any thought for the condemnation of their racist connotations, abandoned these terms. The women who served their households were afforded the dignity of their own names.
I began the column, gentle reader, with an insistence that I don’t and won’t lapse in my speech or writing into current Americanisms. Some writers, even in India, (I shall name no names!) find American English alluring and adopt, however clumsily, the idioms and catchphrases of the argot of the black American ghetto.
This is historically pathetic as even an authoritative source such as the Cambridge University department of language studies contends that in 50 years or so the majority of English speakers in the world will be Indians. They go on to say that Indian English will, through the usage of millions, be the dominant form of the language.
So “prepone” will enter the Oxford dictionary. And the word “recuse”, which I heard for the first time when my friend Tarun Tejpal, accused of a heinous crime for which he has not yet been tried, used it in a press release, will also become popular usage.
That’s all “good”.
What gives me pause is some translations from Indian languages into English. For instance the Hindi verb “rakhna” can in English mean “to put down” or “to keep”. Too often I have read “he keeps the phone down on the table”.
So also, when as children we played our rock and roll records at a high volume, our grandfather, whose snooze we may have disturbed, would come in and say in Gujarati, but using the English word “jaraa slow karideo”, meaning make it softer.
My cousin, translating literally from the Parsi Gujarati often says “I know my blame is coming!”
Will these literal translations enter the Oxford dictionaries of the future?
What about the ambivalent translation of the Hindustani word “bandh” as both “close” and “switch off” — as in “baththi bandh karo”? I once, in her presence heard Benazir Bhutto say that before a failed terrorist attack on her they were “closing the lights”.
“Why were they closing the lights?” she asked.