The deep, entangled and astounding roots of words, Indian and foreign, and the stories of their genesis are presented in inimitable style by novelist, columnist and screenwriter Farrukh Dhondy in his latest offering.
Simply entitled Words (HarperCollins 2015), the slim compendium of the currency of language and their origins is a veritable dive into an enchanting world of discovery.
For instance, imagine how surprised you may feel when, put in mind about the delightful ditty which has Johnny Walker extol the virtues of ‘tel malish’ to potential customers, you are calmly told that the subaltern champi is the word that passed into the English language as shampoo.
Champi became shampoo, Dhondy tells us, some time in the 18th century. The writer also deconstructs words of more current coinage as also those of timeless appeal and even goes into the etymology of parsi surnames.
Some of the revelations and the unboxing are bound to leave you incredulous while others will send you rolling with laughter.
Like when he traces down the peculiarities and quirks that a language like English picks up by virtue of its use by the widest array of humanity possible.
A case in point is “aaiee yaar shut up”, which Dhondy says is a typical Delhi/North Indian expression that is more nuanced in its connotation than the straight-laced shut up as used in the English world. The shut up with the Delhi inflection, the author says, is really an expression of shock or great surprise and not the gruff telling off which it would imply in the west.
Ideas indeed travel on the back of words but what Dhondy also shows is that words themselves travel quite far themselves. Chemise, that sophisticated French-sounding term for a woman’s loose-fitting undergarment or nightdress, Dhondy tells us, is actually borrowed from the ubiquitous ‘kameez’ of India, a word with Urdu or Arabic roots.
Dhondy’s work is peppered with anecdotes, family lore andDhondy’s work is peppered with anecdotes, family lore and urban myth that cast a light on the human agency behind the shaping and propagation of words and their meaning.
Drawing up a free-wheeling account and casting his net wide, the author also devotes space to the argot of school and college students and the profanities of common parlance, not to mention the legends inscribed on the back of trucks.
He also traces down some of the Indianisms that this country has introduced into the Queen’s language with the usage of the term ‘revert’ being cited as one case in point.
The author points out that the sense of getting back to somebody on a specific matter that the word is used to convey in India is not what it means in its strictly English usage.
Dhondy does not adopt the severe and uncomprising approach of the puritan, but, instead, in shining a kindly light on the quirks of culture, habits of lifestyle and the influences of land and climate that contribute to the creation of words, takes the reader on a delightful and enriching search into the provenance of language.
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