A lexical sampler — The shape of words to come

Mukul Kesavan, The Telegraph


If we were to apply the new bisyllabic rule of political nick-naming (pioneered by NaMo and unpersuasively mimicked by RaGa) to modern Indian history, Twitter timelines would know Mohandas Gandhi as MoGa and Jawaharlal Nehru as JaNe. Apart from bad jokes about TarZan, this would have added little to our understanding of these men.

I disapprove of name-shortening that looks to turn netas into hipster brands. It subverts the sonority of desi naming systems besides encouraging a presumptuous familiarity with our leaders which erodes the necessary distance between them and us, a distance crucial to good governance.

This habit of abbreviation is pernicious for another reason: it makes harmless words and names pregnant with political meaning. It makes language a minefield. This is particularly problematic for the politically correct, who, unlike rugged majoritarians, are still plagued by sensibility.

A charter member of this beleaguered community confided the other day that she was traumatized by a telephone commercial because a trigger word put her in mind of dour communal monsters. An old college friend from my days in Delhi University spoke of a sense of foreboding every time he ate a momo. This was a cruel cut because his undergraduate memories, so bound up with momos at Tib Mon (the Tibetan Monastery near the campus) had been permanently overwritten by MoMos at TibMon. ‘Something’, as Walter de la Mare once wrote, ‘has gone and ink and print will never bring it back.’

So momos lost their innocence as did Perry Como and that harassed Red Indian chief, now graven in Indian minds as GeRoNiMo. Pluralist parachutists, I’m told, might stop shouting ‘Geronimo!’ while leaping off their planes (as parachutists customarily do), because they’re no longer sure who they are invoking. You know that politics has turned poisonous when it infects everyday words. Like sumo. Or majordomo. Where will it end?

But, as Naipaul stoically said, the world is what it is, and we have to deal with it as we find it. One service that every generation should render the one that follows it is to document the way in which language evolved in its time. This is a responsibility every demographic cohort ought to discharge, but its burden lies more heavily on anglophone Indian shoulders.

English speaking nations like Britain and the United States have great dictionary traditions that track linguistic usage over time. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language have sought, over the centuries, to map the meanings of words and the way these meanings have changed through use.

Indian speakers of English, though, have no dictionary of Indian usage to fall back on. But we are lucky in that the internet is, metaphorically, one vast searchable dictionary and we can (individually if need be), upload into this ether, words and neologisms and their contemporary meanings. Why? So that posterity doesn’t have to puzzle out usage that will, in time, change or become obsolete.

What follows is a lexical sampler, a handful of words that are looking for traction, for purchase, in desi usage and sometimes finding it.

modi~fy: to shift the blame for violence on to its victims. Thus, ‘Amit began to modify the history of the Gujarat pogrom in 2002.’ This transference can be helped along by the use of the dangling modi~fier and its uncanny knack of recasting victims as passive-aggressors: ‘Eyes bloodshot, hoarse with vengeful shouting, the ghetto was burnt to the ground by the mob.’ Bloodshot, vengeful ghettoes aren’t likely to attract much sympathy even if they are burnt to the ground.

modi~fication: the parent process, the projected transformation of India into Pakistan. modi~fication can also be used as a generic term for majoritarian transition, the conversion of a country into a state owned by its religious majority. Thus, Sri Lanka under the Rajapakse government becomes a nation where modification is complete.

modi~cum: an infinitesimally small, therefore negligible, quantity of anything good. Thus ‘a modicum of tolerance’; ‘a modicum of kindness’; ‘a modicum of humanity’ etc.

modi~sh: a sense of style centred on half-sleeved orange kurtas with Chinese collars. ‘Six modish men with furry arms sat round a small table at the Centre, speaking of Turks and Trojan horses.’ This is a narrow definition but the sartorial evolution of homo Hinducus is in its infancy and variations on modishness are a likely contingent on electoral victory.

dé~modé: ideologically out of fashion. ‘Faced by row after row of modish men, Lal Krishna felt the pain of being de trop and démodé.’

modi~ste: a fashionista committed to modish couture; sometimes used metaphorically to describe majoritarian grande dames. ‘Two mature modistes slaved to make the schooling of minorities seem exciting and reasonable.’ Modistes are particularly valuable members of the majoritarian vanguard because they help deflect charges of patriarchy, misogyny and (given that modistes are mostly anglophone) provincialness.

modi~um: the odium that attaches to bigotry. This is an ugly neologism likely to become obsolete should the NDA become a durable governing coalition.

im~modi~um: an emergency remedy for the queasiness and bowel-shifting unease occasionally experienced by the newly modified.

Modi~glani: medieval Sindhi artist whose principal themes are shame, guilt and their expiation.

modi~Luft: 1. a flying modi (defunct) 2. Kal-El (re-costumed in saffron suit, swastika decal and contrasting shorts).

cap~itulate: to attend a BJP rally in a skull cap.

re~cap~itulate: to attend a BJP rally in a skull cap having previously attended an SP rally in a skull cap.

Modi~nagar: sangh parivar slang for Delhi (esp. Gujarat).

com~modi~ties: items associated with the schooling of minorities: trishuls, clubs etc.

com~modi~ous: a spaciousness at once expansive and oppressive, viz., gladiatorial arenas, colosseums etc. The Nuremberg rallies, for example, can be reasonably described as ‘commodious’, i.e., both massive and odious. ‘As it filled with the half-pant cadres of the Family, the Ram Lila Maidan felt more and more commodious.’

com~modi~fied: to become communal for a consideration. ‘Some are born communal, some become communal, but most are just commodified’.

The insularity of the OED and its constraining sense of itself as the gate-keeper of the English language will keep it from recognizing these words and meanings, but in time, if the great half-pant horizon of a 2nd Republic, majoritarian in both letter and spirit, is achieved, they might achieve the dignity of permanent entries in that great lexicon.

On the other hand, should that political project not come to pass, these words will have had their memorial: a yellow newspaper lining a shelf or an orphaned page, online, but unread.

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