‘Hubby, wifey, kiddo,’ I muttered, ‘why are people so obsessed with this silly sounding terminology? Why can’t they just use simple and straight-forward words or names?’
Specky, my wife, smiled and said, ‘Better than hamare woh that would seem like there were three in some marriage.’ This made us think about euphemisms that we in India are rather fond of using. I’m sure there are other countries where a few of them must be a part of the local communication, but Indians have a knack for going in circles before exclaiming, ‘This is what I mean!’ We are in love with euphemistic turns in our daily language and this certainly isn’t as if we are killing words or adding to some form of ‘zombification of the English language — killing words and phrases, and then bringing them back to life in a brain-dead disfigured form that seeks out healthy humans as prey’ as another writer chose to put it. We love to jalebify whatever we say (if I am allowed to use this word) and this gives a wonderfully exotic aura to English. No, these expressions are never straight-forward and can be disorienting sometimes, but I guess, I would tolerate them all.
So yes, we speak and sometimes write English in ways that may seem incomprehensible to the native speaker. They may smile and nod their head in disbelief to hear phrases like what is your good name, passed out, do the needful, in reduced circumstances, be economical with the truth, foreign-returned, convent educated, sitting on my head, in national interest, eating my brain, and monkey cap but they are understood as they are said here in India.
It isn’t as if euphemisms don’t exist elsewhere in the world. After all, phrases like visually challenged, public conveniences, full-figured, chubby, hankie-pankie, escort service, correction facility, kickbacks, lobbying, and even time-pass are used extensively without having to pass through the smog of incomprehension. The new-age fascination with the internet has created euphemisms like totally lol and we all know exactly what it means and do not squirm when we hear or even read it in a book. I remember loving the way euphemisms give language the much needed encouragement of understanding nods and smiles and have never been against people talking about the birds and the bees, wham-bam thank-you-ma’am, lying six feet under, fell off the back of a truck, call of nature, and even doing your business. I know what they really mean… and so must anyone find the rather quaint Indian euphemisms like doing graduation, belonging to a particular city, or even a departmental store funny?
Specky read all of this and said, ‘Do one thing. Add here that when a North Indian says Madrasi he means anyone from the southern parts of the country and that there is no animosity or ill-will there.’
‘Is it the same as when we call every Muslim a Pakistani?’ I asked. Believe me, I have heard this one hundreds of times and not once was there any hostility in the tone. It was always said with a smile and even accepted with a smile. This is what the real India is like. I say this because I have heard even the Muslim barber call out to his co-worker, ‘Arre Pakistani, how long will you keep puffing on that stub, now get back to work.’
I asked, ‘Must you call him a Pakistani?’
‘Just jokingly,’ he said with a smile, ‘we are from the same village.’
Yes, there are a few of the euphemisms that have not yet found their way into formal written language. However, our spoken language, at least in Delhi, is neither Hindi nor Punjabi nor Urdu and not even the Queen’s English. It is a charming mix of all these languages and more. There are easy words from Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Marathi, and other languages that are now used in ways that will make their native speakers giggle for long. Bollywood and even the way certain news has been leveraged has added their own form of colloquialism to this massive repertoire that will barely be understood by anyone outside our geographical perimeter. Babu ji and even baba, we all know, have a sinister tone now. Sarkari has evolved to being an ever-green phrase for stand-up comedians.
So don’t despair, our euphemisms are here to stay and they are all going to pass out with a beaming first class. We do NOT kill words. We play with them in ways that creates an altogether new world. Our fiction writers need to understand this and include them all and let the world know that euphemisms respects language convergence like nothing else does.
24 January 2019