Stories that make our everyday language

Not more than two months ago we were introduced to Pechakucha. Microsoft Word’s dictionary underlines the word with red right now. It’s a Japanese word, a concept of quick presentations, sharing ideas in twenty slides and twenty seconds to each slide.

We at DY Works started with four Pechakuchas every Friday. We’d talk about movies that stayed with us, or the music that made us feel. We laughed on the clichés of kissing flowers or Shakti Kapoor that we miss in Bollywood today, and were dumbfounded with an image and sound experience that contrasted war photography and cuddly bunny pictures. It was only after a few weeks that I learnt the story from where Pechakucha originated – architects in Japan trying to crystalize their complex presentations into crisper and more understandable talks. The idea caught on and many cities, organizations host sessions with it. Pechakucha has now become an everyday word at DY Works.

Quite akin to how foreign words become a part of everyday language. English for instance, has borrowed from around the word over centuries. Philip Gooden, a British author has put it tastefully in his new book ‘May we borrow your language’, how English has stolen, snaffled, purloined, pilfered, appropriated and looted words from all across. While these very words, in essence, are thefts from Old English, Low German, Anglo Norman French, Old French, Late Latin and Hindustani. Languages evolve with trade, invasion and conquests, advancement in science – medicine and technology, ideological structure, beliefs and rituals – a way of life of a certain people from certain time and place.

Ketchup has its origins in Chinese – Cantonese dialect that meant tomato soup. And tamarind has traveled from India. Trade took imli to Persia who called it tamar-i-hind or the Indian Date from where it became Tamarind. Similarly Jaggery comes from Sanskrit sarkara taken by Portuguese as xagara or jagara and finally jaggery in English by the 16th century. Food is interesting fodder for linguists. The animal romping around on the street loses its English name to the imported one when prepared and served. With the Norman invasion of England in the 11th century, pig became pork on the table, cow – beef and lamb – mutton.

India has given shampoo to the world via the English. Through the Raj several words like juggernaut, nirvana, jungle, curry and bungalow were lifted off. Intriguing stories tell us why words originated from where they originated. Old English has doolally (or dolally tap) which meant insane or feeble minded. Lore has its origin from Deolali – a town in Maharashtra which served as a British military’s transit camp for troops to sail back to England. Soldiers would often fall ill to malaria (tap from the Sanskrit tapa for heat or fever). Doolally caught on as losing one’s mind due to illness and boredom. Haven’t you spot a happy brewed beer pub named Doolally across Mumbai?

Their two hundred years on Indian soil also gave to the British Army their long service medal’s name – Rooty Gong. It comes from the Bengali variation of roti – if someone survived a career on military rotis his endurance must be appreciated.

Language also takes roots in ideologies. Patriarchy’s offshoots are sexist words we use today. Hysteria means wildness or madness and its etymology is the Latin hystericus – of the womb. Not far away is lunacy (madness) or loony (silly). They come from lunar – of the moon. The moon cycle is entwined with the menstrual one. The monthly biology lends to the idea of menstruating women being mad – or lunacy as a word we’ve often used for madness. In the same breath is the word seminal (from the male fertility) that is readily used for anything that’s path-breaking or important. It equates ‘importance’ to the masculine pronoun ‘he’.

Rituals, customs and a daily way of life too have constructed our everyday language. Cats and dogs holed up in the thatched roofs of medieval English homes slipped off the straw when it rained, and so it rained cats and dogs. Or the (once in a) blue moon that shouts out for something that’s very infrequent is a mistaken name – blue slipped in for an Old English word belewe which means ‘to betray’ – Sighting of two full moons in a single month happens every two-three years, and this astrological occurrence meant an extra fasting during Lent, hence the betrayer moon. To let your hair down at the end of an exhausting day, one must look at the way hair was pinned up in Medieval Paris – French noblewomen would spend hours on elaborate hairdos for a brief outing. Picture Marie Antoinette. That’s letting your hair down! While, buttering up someone comes from Indian rituals. The Hindi phrase makkhan lagana comes from the ritual of offering (in some cultures throwing) balls of clarified butter to (at) Gods’ idols seeking favour.

What we do today is what we’ll speak tomorrow. We’re building our language every day and our everyday language is built of forgotten stories, obsolete lifestyles, latent connotations and sly gendered / political statements.