A reader has referred to “Barmicide’s feast” mentioned in an editorial page article, “The road to inclusive growth” (September 15, 2009, paragraph 6). Stating that it should be “Barmecide’s feast”, the reader, K. Nehru Patnaik of Visakhapatnam, explained: “Barmecides are the noble Persian families which came to great political power under the Abbacid Caliphs.”

The relevant sentences in the article authored by P.S. Appu read: “The policymakers who introduced reservation for the disadvantaged in institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management without ever bothering to give them access to high-quality school education put the cart before the horse. What the politicians really did was to invite the disadvantaged to a veritable Barmicide’s feast! Only the so-called creamy layer benefit from reservation. The most effective affirmative action in the field of education would have been to provide adequate facilities for quality school education to the children of the weaker sections.”

The reader has to be thanked for pointing out the error, but the additional information he has given does not throw much light on what “Barmecide’s feast” means. Some interesting details have emerged from a quick study of the word Barmecide.

According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Volume 1), the word “Barmecide” (noun and adjective) is of Arab ( barmak i) origin and relates to “the patronymic of a prince in the Arabian Nights’ Environments who feasted a beggar on a succession of empty dishes to test his humour.” In its noun form the word means “a person who offers imaginary food or illusory benefits.” As an adjective it means “illusory, unreal; offering imaginary food or illusory benefits.” Barmecide means, according to the Chambers English Dictionary, “one who offers an imaginary or pretended banquet or other benefit” [from an imaginary feast given to a beggar in the Arabian Nights, by one of the Barmecide family].

If we look at the relevant paragraph of the article in the light of this knowledge about “Barmecide’s feast,” it becomes clear how the ruling political class has taken the disadvantaged for a ride in the name of reservation. Such is the power of the metaphor. It has also added strength to Mr. Appu’s well-argued case for ensuring high-quality school education to children of the weaker sections.

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A.K. Muneer Hudwai of Malappuram in Kerala has sought clarification on the use of “dead” and “passes away” in The Hindu’s headlines with reference to two reports. One of them related to the death of Panakkad Syed Mohammedali Shihab Thangal, the Kerala State president of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) on August 1. The other report was on the death of film actor Murali on August 7. The reader pointed out that in the case of the first report the headline read “IUML leader Shihab Thangal dead” and the heading for the other report was “Actor Murali passes away.” With due apologies to the reader for delaying this response, it may also be stated that absolutely no discrimination against or disrespect to the IUML State president was meant in writing these headlines.

In fact, in the case of Murali, barring the front page report in the Kerala edition, the reports published in all other editions, including the online edition, carried the common headline, “Actor Murali is dead.” Even in the case of the report on the front page of the Kerala edition, space and design constraints obviously influenced the choice of the single column heading. The phrase verb, ‘passes away’ is a bit longer than ‘dead’ and would fill the “white space.”

It is true that not long ago ‘passes away’ had a special connotation. It was used especially to report the death of any respected person, cutting across social and other barriers. “If “died” is considered “harsh” or “blunt” “passed away” can be used as a euphemism for “died” [or “is dead.”] (Oxford English Dictionary). Both ‘dead’ and ‘pass away’ have come to stay in recent times as expressions with the same meaning (“to cease to exist”) in most English language newspapers, in India and abroad. This only highlights the urgent need for a comprehensive style book for the newspaper and adherence to it in the interest of consistency of usage.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in