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Tuesday, Oct 15, 2019

When bad English is bad economics

Bad English and bad economics are now part of the American discourse, writes Narayanan Madhavan.

india Updated: Jun 15, 2007 01:00 IST
Narayanan Madhavan
Narayanan Madhavan

I think I am about to give up challenging those who say, “She works for a BPO!”

Business process outsourcing (BPO), I thought, was a process, not an institution, but the mushrooming of companies that offer call centre, accounting or other back-office services to US companies has resulted in a little Indianism, in which the verb “outsourcing” is compressed into a noun called BPO!

I call this the “nouning” of the verb. I mean, when a verb can become a noun, why cannot a hapless noun have its own sweet revenge!

Many Indians merrily twist the English language, perhaps in the fond and time-tested hope that their argot will get into some supplement of the Oxford English Dictionary, sooner than later. Just look at where that word “prepone” has reached. It has acquired global respectability as the opposite of “postpone” while those English teachers who cried hoarse about the non-existence of this word are now reaching out for their throat lozenges.

But twisting the English language is not an Indian prerogative. The Americans have done it in style, and what is more, they have twisted meanings to suit their interests as well.

I am talking about “outsourcing” which is itself a word that calls for plenty of attention. Originally, the word was used by management specialists to refer to the process by which companies contract out some kind of work (which is usually not a core function) to another company.

In this context, outsourcing was linked to another company, not country. However, in popular American parlance, the word has now come to refer work sent outside the United States, and, in a broad sense, even to import of manufactured goods into the United States in general. So, when the Chinese make toys for American brands, they say toy-making is “outsourced,” and when Indians write software for US clients, coding is “outsourced.”

It is a different matter that increasingly, companies not only farm out stuff which they did in-house earlier, but start fresh services and even innovative design and research and development work in countries like India. China, for instance, produces its own innovative toys, toy Ganeshas included.

Such work involves global partnerships, not outsourcing, but the “out” part of it is used by US protectionists as if all the world’s work was destined by some decree of God to be done forever in America by Americans.

The O word is further twisted now. Companies that carry out work for US companies are called “outsourcers” while they are better called “outsourcees” if good old English is to be valued. The current habit is a bit like referring to an employee as the employer!

Bad English and bad economics are now part of the American discourse. US Senators now want curbs on work permit visas, while some Congressmen rant against outsourcing of technology or call centre work to India.

When India gets US-based banks into the country, does it mean the country is “outsourcing” the financing of its industry? When Indian airline companies buy Boeing jets (in dozens, mind you), does India “outsource” its jet-making to the US?

In the end, economics is about buying and selling goods or services. And market economics is about doing these with a reasonable degree of freedom. That is plain enough for even President George W Bush to grasp. If in doubt, he has the additional option of looking up “the Google,” as he once famously referred to the popular search engine.

Or else, Bush can always ask an Indian sitting in Nagpur or Kochi to explain something from the search engine to him over the Internet for a cost-effective charge. You know, it is now called person-to-person “outsourcing!”

First Published: Jun 15, 2007 00:47 IST

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