Choose your words carefully, for they have a history

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Backlava cartoon2We’ve got to mind our language. With reference to Rahul Gandhi’s UP rally on 6 September, a photo caption reads: “Locally known as khaats, such cots will feature in other Congress rallies…” The phonetic similarity did not make the writer pause and ponder about which came first, the Hindi or the English. If you check the word’s etymological origins, you find that ‘cot’ is an Anglicised version of the Hindi word khaat meaning light bedstead and dates back to the mid-17th century, which is when the British arrived in India. It’s khatva in Sanskrit and kattil in Tamil.

So it’s not as if cots are locally known as khaats. More accurately, khaats are known as ‘cots’ in the English-speaking world.

There are many such words, forged in the fire of colonialism. Sahib or Saheb is a name of Arabic origin meaning ‘holder, master or owner’. It migrated to several languages, including Pashto, Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi and Somali. But though ‘Sir’ sounds as if it had the same parentage, this honorific comes from France, where it started life as sire or seigneur. If you dig further for its roots, you find the Latin senex that means aged or old, and from which the words senator, senior and senile are derived. Of course, this does not mean that a senior is necessarily senile, but irreverent juniors do regard them as such.

And what of ‘Madam’? Our generation does not pronounce the ‘d’, as in our youth ‘madam’ meant a woman running a brothel. We prefer to be called Ma’am, which in French means ‘My lady’ and implies a woman of rank or authority, much better than Didi (for unmarried women) and Aunty. So in office we tend to be called Ma’am, but the neighbourhood children would call us Aunty, uncaring of our rank or authority.

The English language not only evolved from French, German, Spanish, Greek and Latin but from all the colonies. Thus the word ‘amok’ (as in ‘running amok’) was originally a Malay word but might also come from the Portuguese ‘amouco’. Bamboo could have come from similar-sounding Dutch or Malay words.

What about ‘Hello’? Fowler’s dictionary in the 1920s listed halloo, hallo, halloa,
halloo, hello, hillo, hilloa, holla, holler, hollo, holloa, hollow, hullo, admitting that the multiplicity of forms is “bewildering”. It did not begin as a greeting, but as a hollering to attract attention, perhaps in Germany to hail a ferry. It rose to popularity as a greeting with the spread of the telephone, when it won the battle with ‘Ahoy’ suggested by Alexander Graham Bell. ‘Hi’ is generally accepted to be an abbreviated form of
‘Hello’, in a world where time is short, though the trendier form these days is ‘Hey’. Which is ironical, considering ‘He Prabhu’ and ‘He Ram’ were in use long before these western forms of greeting became the norm in India.

‘Hey’ is also classified as a natural human expression, a kind of universal word. The same goes with Ma, Mother (in old English moder and modor) and Mum,that come from the mouths of babies without any tutoring. Not so spontaneous is Father, which comes from pater (Latin and Greek), pitar (Sanskrit), fathir (Old Norse) and faedar (Old English). In German, the word is vater, with ‘v’ being pronounced as ‘f’, as in Volkswagen.

All this is well researched. In India, somebody should find out why Punjabis say “Hello Ji”, and call dogs ‘doggies’. Of course, they also say, “Come, baby, handwash karo” or “Food finish karo”, preparing the child for that scary day when she will enter the hallowed portals of an English school, and will be spoken to in the foreign tongue. So the child will never be told, “Khaat pe so jao”. It’s more likely to be “Bed pe sleep karo. Nahin toh doggie bite karega.”

If the English swallowed our words, we are chewing theirs into a pulp.