Majority opinion is everything — it can even change your surname

When I started my career in journalism nearly two decades ago – “20 years” would have made me sound just as ancient – as a trainee sub-editor with The Pioneer in Kanpur, one of the errors I looked out for in a copy was the merging of “per cent.” Most reporters spelt it as one word, and I would dutifully draw a line between “per” and “cent” to indicate to the compositor that there should be a space between the two. Those were still the days of the horse-shoe desk, when the news editor or the chief sub-editor sat at its centre and distributed typed or hand-written copies for editing to his juniors who sat in a semi-circle in front of him, pens ready.

Within a year and a half, I moved to Delhi to join the Press Trust of India. There too, it was “per cent” and not “percent.” But in the impeccably edited copies spat out by the ticker machine “percent” and no longer “per cent.” This was in the mid-1990s. Today, a sub-editor would not raise an eyebrow at the sight of “percent” being presented as a single word. Even spell-check does not underline the word in red.

But is it really correct to say “percent” instead of “per cent?” Technically, no. Just like we don’t say “perhead” or “perperson.” But the majority, be it in Parliament or in society, always has its say – and way. Since an overwhelming majority has been spelling it as “percent,” the custodians of the language had no choice but to incorporate it as an acceptable word.

It is only a matter of time before “inspite” and “accommodate” become acceptable too: the number of people who are either ignorant or don’t bother to insert the space and the extra “m” respectively in the two words is getting too large to ignore.  Many American magazines today use the word Prez instead of President – something that might have been considered irreverent even a couple of decades ago. A classic case of the corruption of a word gaining public acceptance is “juggernaut.” The original word is Jagannath, another name for Lord Krishna, who is the presiding deity of the temple in Puri and who is taken out in a chariot in a massive procession each year. Somewhere down the centuries, Jagannath happened to enter the English dictionary as “juggernaut,” defined as “any large, overpowering, destructive force or object” (the definition, obviously, is inspired by the annual chariot procession).

Talking of present times, the expressions that we use during online chats, such as LOL (laughing out loud) and OMG (oh my god) were incorporated by the Oxford English Dictionary in its updates this year. WTF – I don’t wish to expand it here – was already included in 2009 (or so I am told). So go ahead, coin your own abbreviation. How about IABM – In A Bad Mood? If it gets picked up by the public, chances are that your creation will enter the OED in the year 2020.

Popularity, or popular usage, is the yardstick. Once a misspelled word gains currency, it no longer matters how it came to be misspelled in the first place – it could have been ignorance, indifference, laziness or a stupid clerical error. As far as clerical errors go, who should know it better than Mr Henry Sulivan Graeme and Mr Richard Yeldham.

These two gentlemen lived in East India Company-ruled Madras around the same time.  Graeme, a civil servant, was a member of the Madras council (a highly powerful position at the time) for five years from 1823. During his stay in Madras, he owned a bungalow in Nungambakkam, and the road connecting his bungalow to Mount Road was subsequently named as Graeme’s Road. Yeldham, on the other hand, was a merchant of the Company who went on to become the mayor of Madras in 1801 (he happened to be the last mayor appointed during the Company rule). By the time he died, in 1820, at the age of 68, Yeldham had built a palatial house in Teynampet, and the road leading from his house to Mount Road was subsequently named as Yeldham’s Road.

Today, Graeme’s Road has been rechristened as Greams Road, and Yeldham’s Road is Eldams Road. Who is responsible for the changes in their names – no one knows. The roads are so well known by their corrupted names today that even if Mr Graeme and Mr Yeldham were to come out of their graves and plead with Chennai Corporation to restore the correct spellings of their respective surnames, they are most likely to be turned away. Mr Graeme would to return to his grave as Mr Gream and Mr Yeldham as Mr Eldam. Such is the power of popular usage.