Sunday, April 23, 2017

tongue twister


English is a rich language in every sense of the term. Its already-staggering wealth of words is ever-expanding, thanks to the open arms with which it welcomes words from other languages. The official website of the Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the second edition of the 20-volume dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words.

Yet, there are occasions when one feels the language falls short of an apt word or phrase to describe a situation, person or emotion. Mercifully, other languages can fill this gap. Imagine someone says something to you that leaves you so outraged that you're at loss for words to return the compliment. Later, thinking about it, the words come to you but by then the moment is gone. English has no term to convey such slow-to-respond wit. French has. It's called l'esprit de l'escalier (literally, staircase wit).

Of course, one always has the option to forget and forgive. As they say in Gujarati, "Manav matra/bhool ne patra" (to err is human)... One could go a step further and turn the other cheek. We all know the word for that: Gandhigiri. However, two cheeks are all one has. So, would it not be fair to hit back the third time? Well, there is one language which has the ready word for such a policy. The word Ilunga comes from Tshiluba, a branch of Bantu language spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Actually, after the third insult, the aggrieved person could be forgiven for thinking that the aggressor's face is backfeifengesicht - in German, that means 'a face badly in need of a fist'.

Talking of faces, there's a word in Arabic for resolving a dispute without any party losing face: tarradhin. It isn't the same as 'compromise' but a positive win-win for the two sides. Unfortunately, there's no dearth of bystanders who hate such outcomes. Not only because it robs them of a piece of precious schadenfreude - German for pleasure derived from the misfortune of others - but also because it may verily send them into deep missgunst (German word conveying the feeling of not liking it when something good happens to someone you don't like).

Indians can claim credit for the ultimate terminological jugaad called 'miskaal' ( missed call). But while miskaal says a lot without saying anything, for the exact sense in which we use it we have to turn to the Czech word prozvonit. This means calling a mobile phone and disconnecting after the first ring so that the other person calls back. Naturally, that saves the first caller the outgoing call charge.

The point is obvious. In the age of Twitter, the key word is not economy (of words) but freakonomy. We need words and phrases that can pack in a whole lot of quirky sense. In fact, wordsmiths would do well to coin new words for some situations and behaviours which are being reported frequently.

For example, we need a word for the newly revealed practice of claiming the full airfare despite travelling on a concessional ticket so as 'to use the surplus for the benefit of the poor and downtrodden'. Similarly, one commonly hears celebrities say by way of self-defence, 'I was quoted out of context'. Could we not find a single word for that? Ditto for someone doing a semi-nude scene because 'the story demanded it'. Or for inviting someone to one's wedding and hoping that he doesn't turn up.

Last but not least, we need a word for a frequently reported eventuality in India. It has to do with a high and mighty personality developing chest pain on being arrested for a crime, so much so that he requires immediate admission in a swanky hospital. How about creating a neat four-letter word for such a tragic circumstance?

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