What’s the good word?

S Muthiah’s recent book is a guide to English communication in South Asia

The first in the glossary is India’s word of the moment — Aadhaar. With this, Chennai city chronicler S Muthiah launches into a list of words and phrases used across the subcontinent that have, over the course of a century, been drawn from Indian languages or evolved from the country’s brand of home-grown English. And, while there are words such as chota hazri (a light breakfast) that instantly draw a picture of Raj-era men in handlebar moustaches and sola topees, there are also words such as masala film and midday meal scheme, representative of more recent times.

Nearly 3,000 such words have found their way into Words in Indian English (published by Palaniappa Brothers) that was launched in the city recently. The book, in its second edition, has its origin in a conversation between the author and an American couple who discussed the contents — words such as rail roko, morcha and gymkhana — of two Indian newspapers in English they were reading on a flight. It was an incident that stayed with Muthiah, who realised that a guidebook was needed to help the outsider navigate through the minefield that is Indian English. The first edition was published in 1991.

The idea for the book is not new, says Muthiah, seated in his study at home. “It owes much to at least three other books, one as old as 1886. Col Henry Yule’s and Dr AC Burnell’s Hobson Jobson is certainly what got me interested, many years ago, in English and ‘how she is spoke’ in this part of the world. The other two books were Oxford University Press publications’ Indian and British English by Paroo Nihalani, PK Tongue and Priya Hosali in 1979, and the ubiquitous RE Hawkins’ Common Indian Words in English in 1984,” he says.

While Hobson Jobson, compiled by Yule of the Bengal Engineers and Burnell of the Madras Civil Service, has words that have seeped into English such as bungalow, curry, dungarees and juggernaut, and are often accompanied by a note on their genesis, Muthiah’s book appeals to both native and non-native speakers and also to anyone reading a newspaper or magazine. The second edition also has words from both North and South India. It looks at phrasal constructions unique to this part of the world, such as ‘fell down’, ‘return back’, ‘electrical iron’ and ‘cope up’.

The book that begins with two charming letters, one written by Mary to her mother in 1886 and the other with plenty of Indianisms thrown in, looks at how English in India has evolved — it depends on where the speaker has learnt the language from — and a smattering of words borrowed from other colonial powers in India.

The guide is an instructive, fun read, leading you down the path of discovering words we use every day, their origin and meaning. Where else would you find that a Black Cat is not a feline, that an in-skirt is a petticoat, and hot drinks are actually liquor?

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Printable version | Apr 1, 2020 7:09:51 AM |

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