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Speaking English

It's time to once again poke a little fun at the English language or, more accurately, our use of it. So, if you've had your fill of Anna, inflation, petrol prices and the 2G accused, this is very possibly the remedy you need. Sit comfortably and read on for a little frivolous pleasure. Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: Nov 12, 2011 21:04 IST
Karan Thapar

It's time to once again poke a little fun at the English language or, more accurately, our use of it. So, if you've had your fill of Anna, inflation, petrol prices and the 2G accused, this is very possibly the remedy you need. Sit comfortably and read on for a little frivolous pleasure.

First, consider how the English language has changed. When I was 10, rubber meant eraser, ass meant donkey, gay meant happy, straight was linear, cock was a rooster, pussy a cat, a prick was a jab, a poke a nudge and a screw was what a carpenter used. Oh yes, in case I forget, a tit was a response for a tat. Now, today, even if you're gay, you're unlikely to admit it whilst many more are pricks and don't know it. And very few use a rubber! We prefer to use pens or type.

Now, here's an apocryphal account of what the Irish have done to the language. My cousin Arjun claims the Irish Medical Dictionary has the following unique definitions for words you and I have always understood differently. Bacteria is defined as "the back door to the cafeteria”, Caesarian Section as "a neighbourhood in Rome", Cat Scan as "searching for Kitty", Coma as "a punctuation mark", whilst Dilate is "to live long", Enema is "Not a friend", Fester is "quicker than someone else", Fibula "a small lie", Labour Pain "getting hurt at work" and Morbid "a higher offer". Nitrates are "rates of pay for night work", a Tablet is "a small table", a Pelvis is "a second cousin of Elvis", Secretion is "to hide something", Urine is the "opposite of you're out" and Terminal Illness is "getting sick at the airport"!

However, more than the Irish, when it comes to destroying the English language the real offenders are the Americans. Even though Professor Higgins insists they haven't spoken it for years, they've mastered the art of making simple English needlessly complicated. So when an American goes shopping rather than buy he asks "Can I get…". When he contemplates, rather than choose the easiest he opts for the "least worst option". When he arrives he doesn't disembark but "deplanes". Worse, if something happens, often it's said to be "oftentimes". And, of course, twice and thrice have been replaced by "two-times" and "three-times".

Finally, here are the Indianisms — our own unique national contribution to the misery of English — that I once threatened to bombard you with. This is a collection sent by Bambi Rao, to whom I'm, of course, indebted.

While the rest of the world on finishing their studies graduate, we "pass out". Given our grades, perhaps that's more accurate. When we want to ask for a reply we command "kindly revert", unaware that it means return to a former state. When we want someone to do something, we state "kindly do the needful", which presumes they share our need. And famously, when we're away we say we're "out of station". I wonder what's wrong with out of town or, even, I'm not here?

However, there is one Indianism that serves a most useful purpose and I do recommend it to the English. It's to "prepone", the opposite of postpone i.e. to bring forward an appointment or an event. Quite frankly, this is a word that we need and it makes a lot of sense. It deserves to exist. So my advice to the lexicographers of the Oxford English Dictionary is simple: "Kindly adjust"!

The views expressed by the author are personal.