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Beyond making oneself understood

There existed a time, a generation ago perhaps, when many people memorised the bombastic passages of Dr. Samuel Johnson and the like to be able to cite them and impress others. In my younger days, my uncle would train his fingers like a gun and say he would knock us from verticality to horizontality, terrorising us further with some strange words such as ‘perambulations’ and ‘perpendicularity’! One could invariably score high marks by using flowery expressions. Even simple pranams would be ‘infinite humble prostrations at your lotus feet’. It seemed ‘never make it simple’ was the maxim then.

Becoming a literature student had its share of charms and pleasures. Charles Lamb and his ‘Dream-Children...’ captivated us as much as Dr. Johnson’s funny formulations did. We learned to ‘breathe in one language and exhale in another’. Later, being a teacher brought in further changes. Now, communicating and transacting became more important than merely impressing. Naturally, the mission now was to make it as simple as possible. Making oneself understood was the ultimate purpose, and flowery language was then the first casualty.

That sinking feeling

This habit continues. New words are still picked up but nowadays there is somehow a reluctance to use rare words or expressions. It gives a sinking feeling when people show a tendency to use such words in casual conversations or writing. When a friend casually complained of ‘dysania’, I was concerned. Is it some disease, I wondered, until I found out that it is the condition of finding it difficult to get out of bed in the morning — which almost all of us suffer from! On such occasions, my ‘glabella’ (the space between the eyebrows) narrows, my ‘minimus’ (the tiny toe or finger) twitches, my columella nasi (the space between the nostrils) flares and it is as if I had ‘crapulence’ (that sick feeling you get after eating or drinking too much).

Being subjected to Johnson’s style or perplexing words is like trying to make sense out of ‘griffonage’, the unreadable hand-writing that doctors are accused of. Such instances make me wonder what these people will say if asked to name some of the nicest sensations. I may like the smell after the rains; they will name it ‘petrichor’. The cry of a newborn baby will be music to my ears; for them it will be ‘vagitus’. I may tell them that I would meet them the day after tomorrow; they may agree to meet me ‘overmorrow’.

I may sing na na na and la la la, adding virtually nothing to the lyrics but may never know that I am doing ‘vocables’. I may combine an exclamation mark with a question mark (I usually do!?), without knowing that it is referred to as an ‘interrobang’.

But then, why should I? If a dozen words can express something more clearly than a single scholarly word, then use them, should be the motto. The latter may knock somebody from verticality to horizontality but the heart responds more to dream-children. One should not be heading for Google or a dictionary to reach out to hearts.

maashu1@gmail.com

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 10:23:07 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/Beyond-making-oneself-understood/article17083369.ece

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