What is the meaning and origin of ‘Who is going to bell the cat'?

(G. Aditya, Hyderabad)

This relatively old idiom means to perform a dangerous or a risky task. When you ask someone ‘Who is going to bell the cat?', you wish to know as to which individual has the courage to do something dangerous.

*We need to inform the Minister that it's his son who has been leaking information to the media. But who is going to bell the cat?

The expression comes from the world of Aesop's fables. In this particular story, a group of mice hold a meeting as to what they can do to prevent the housecat from sneaking up on them. A mouse suggests that if a bell were hung around the cat's neck, then everyone would know where the animal was. The question was, who was going to perform the dangerous task of putting a bell around the cat's neck?

What is the difference between ‘disinterested' and ‘uninterested'?

(C. Dileep, Tiruchy)

The difference in meaning between the two words has become somewhat blurred in recent times. ‘Uninterested' is the opposite of ‘interested'; when you say you are ‘uninterested' in a topic, you mean that it doesn't interest you; you find it boring.

*People are shocked when I tell them I'm uninterested in cricket.

Someone who is ‘disinterested' about something is ‘objective' or ‘impartial'. Like a judge in the courtroom, he does not take sides. Since he has no personal interest in the matter, he is able to listen to both sides of the argument with an open mind before arriving at a fair decision.

*A good umpire should be disinterested in the outcome of a match.

Though careful users of the language object, there is a tendency nowadays to use ‘uninterested' and ‘disinterested' interchangeably — especially, in informal contexts. In fact, the second meaning that most dictionaries list for ‘disinterested' is ‘uninterested'.

How is the word ‘omerta' pronounced?

(Sushma Dongre, Bangalore)

The ‘o' is pronounced like the ‘o' in ‘so', ‘go', and ‘no', and the following ‘er' like the ‘ir' in ‘shirt', ‘dirt', and ‘thirst'. The final ‘a' sounds like the ‘a' in ‘task', ‘ask', and ‘mask'. The word is pronounced ‘o-mer-TAA' with the stress on the final syllable. This is one way of pronouncing the word. In the past, whenever an individual joined a criminal organisation, he used to take an oath that he would not tell others about the various activities of the people he was working for. He swore to secrecy, and no matter what, kept his mouth shut. Under no circumstances did he cooperate with the police. This code of silence which members of the Mafia and other criminal organisations adopted was called ‘omerta'. Breaking omerta often resulted in death. Nowadays, ‘omerta' or the code of silence is being enforced by many organisations — not just criminal ones.

*The mantra of the new political party is omerta.

Which is correct: ‘remanded to custody' or ‘remanded in custody'?

(P.K. Varadarajan, Chennai)

People are always ‘remanded in custody' and not ‘to custody'. When you are ‘remanded in custody', the court sends you back to jail till the trial begins. If the court grants you bail, then you say ‘remanded on bail'.

*The accused has been remanded on bail.

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“In politics, absurdity is not a handicap.”Napoleon Bonaparte

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