English, made in India

English, made in India

When Prince Charles, speaking at a dinner for Indian guests at Windsor Castle in 2007, toasted the entry of the word “chuddies" into the English lexicon, that was considered big news fit to be in headlines. The word was made famous in the BBC comedy, Goodness Gracious Me. The Prince also mentioned “bungalow", “verandah" and “shampoo" as examples of imported words.

Whenever a new edition of an English dictionary is released, people start commenting on the number of new Hindi words that have got into the lexicon. The 11th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary added 80 words from Hindi. “Prepone" has been accepted, and “slumlord" and “jai ho" are more recent candidates for entry.

More interesting to me are English words created in India or reshaped from existing words, and given new meanings. That reveals the versatility and adaptability of English words. After prepone, next in line might be “trifurcate", which is what chief minister Mayawati wants to do with Uttar Pradesh.

“Bollywood" was a happy coinage which immediately caught on. It rhymes with Hollywood, the centre of the U.S. film industry. There is an important difference, however. Hollywood is a geographical location with an address and a zip code. Bollywood, on the other hand, is an abstraction, a space in the mind marked by glamour, ambition and opulence.

“Playback" is a word that has been adapted to Bollywood use. A playback singer pre-records the song, and the actor then synchronizes lip movement to match the words. India’s leading playback singer, Lata Mangeshkar, has her name in the Guinness World Records. Then there are “dubbing artists", who deliver dialogue to match the lip movement of the actor.

Many English words referring to home and family have acquired new meanings. Marriage goes by the grandiose name of alliance. The “function" takes place in a marriage garden or a marriage hall. The bridegroom is often called a boy; as in the book title, A Suitable Boy.

Matrimonial advertisements deserve special attention. Gender equality is thrown to the winds in advertisements that call for a “domesticated" or a “homely" bride. These two words mean nearly the same, though in American English homely means “not beautiful". Wheatish complexion is another phrase that we come across. A slightly more tolerant attitude is seen in those who ask for a “widow without encumbrances". If the boy is “foreign-returned", his tastes are likely to be more specific. He would look for a professionally qualified, career-oriented bride. After the engagement, the boy might introduce his would-be to his friends.

The word “dowry" is not used, but if the bride’s father asks, “What are your expectations?" the other side will understand. Perhaps the saddest of the words in our purview here is “dowry death", a cruel end to a blithe spirit.

The distinction between “restaurant" and “hotel" is blurred in Indian English. There are hotels in India that provide meals but no accommodation. “Bed", to an Englishman, is a piece of furniture with a surface to sleep on. In India, a bed is a mattress, which in railway parlance is a “bed roll".

“Batchmate" means a school colleague, not necessarily in the same class. “Pindrop silence" is an Indian coinage. In native English, you would say, “It was so silent you could hear a pin drop".

Students who prepare for examinations by learning pages of text by rote are said to be “mugging". What is known as “hazing" in the US is called “ragging" in India. Our term “post-graduate student" is rendered as “graduate student" in the US. “Convent-educated" children seem to have an edge over the others and such schools often collect “capitation fees". And don’t forget, nowadays, to gain admission into a professional course, you need to get “cent per cent" marks.

VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.

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