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The dictionary of trendy phrases

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on August 02, 2019 Published on August 02, 2019

How to preserve your ear for English in India

It’s an old truism about trends: What marks one out from the herd is what makes one part of a horde. In the age of influencers and followers, each individual has a flock but, paradoxically, this celebrity-driven desire for uniqueness begins to resemble an assembly line — a flat-lining of personality.

Let’s talk about linguistic trends in English. A recent trend in the world of Indian ‘piece writers’ is to start a column with ‘So’ and a comma speared into the earth immediately afterwards. Instead of searching for a nice opening sentence, a pleasurable part of the writer’s job, the tendency now is to start with ‘So, Sheila Dikshit...’ The comma following ‘So’ somehow elevates the sentence to the realm of hip. It’s plain lazy.

I must admit these days I’m hugely irritated by the word ‘noice’. It’s a cooler term for ‘nice’. Messaging services such as WhatsApp are at the moment a bigger distraction than Twitter or Facebook, which one can choose to shut off from. They occupy an ever larger slice of the attention economy.

Instant messaging means that people are bombarding each other with meaningless jibes and half-thoughts through the course of the day. Each of these messages brings with it a selfish expectation from the sender of a quick reply, the instant gratification that is the founding principle of social media. The easiest meaningless word one can respond to any picture or text with is: ‘Noice’.

A few years before ‘noice’ arrived, two other phrases had found their way into South Delhi, and elsewhere in metropolitan India too: ‘True that’ and ‘My bad’. I still resist using them. I can’t start saying ‘My bad’ overnight when it took me a decade to learn to casually say ‘Sorry man, I f**ked up’, after watching several re-reruns of Tarantino films. Hindi hasn’t had to bother about ‘My bad’ because in Hindi, the galti (the fault) is always the other person’s. Suppose you back your car into another car and it’s your mistake. In Hindi, you always say: “Dikkhta nahin, andha hai kya? (Are you blind or what?)”. The question of ‘My bad’ doesn’t arise. No wonder it sounds so culturally alien.

‘True that’ is the cousin of ‘Noice’. You are in the middle of writing something and someone sends you a picture of a Keventers milkshake on WhatsApp. The only reason he is sending you the photo of the milkshake is that he is drinking it and he won’t feel like he is really having the milkshake unless he sends a photo of it to a random person on his friend list. You stop mid-sentence to check your phone, for editors too correspond on WhatApp and it’s part of work, and find the Keventers photo. You send ‘Noice’ and get back to your computer screen.

The other guy is not done yet. He sends a new text: “Strawberry better than banana, man, any day”. By now, you’re checking your phone again because your editor is saying that it’s ok if the piece goes up to 800 words from 700, and you see this message. You write ‘True that’ and be done with it.

But this friend is not one to give up easily. He sends another one: “Really nice weather in Delhi. For a milkshake”. Lost for words, you throw up your hands and take the final resort: The brown thumbs up icon.

Prior to the advent of ‘So,...’, weighty Indian columnists were excessively fond of two words: ‘Hubris’ and ‘ineluctably’. ‘Hubris’ is still around; it’s a handy word if you write political commentary. ‘Ineluctably’ fortunately went out at the turn of the last millennium.

Prime-time debates on TV have their own verbal clichés that are deployed on an everyday basis until one is forced to stop watching the debates not because there is no logic to them (there isn’t) but because one’s ear for the English language, a gift that has been nurtured and developed over time, will be damaged irreparably.

One cannot switch on the TV without having someone on a panel say, ‘Nidhi, at this point in time...’, ‘Going forward, Nidhi...’; and when outlining the rare argument, it’s always: “No 1, this is unacceptable, No 2 — I did not disturb you while you were speaking..., No 3 — My very good friend, Mr. Owaisi...”.

I’ve also become increasingly wary of any word prefixed with ‘man’. The justified assault on ‘mansplaining’ and ‘manels’ has been followed by the erasure of ‘manhole’ and ‘manpower’ in Berkeley, California, which has banned the words, along with a host of others, to underline the importance of non-binary gender inclusivity. ‘Manhole’ will henceforth be a ‘maintenance hole’, while ‘manpower’ will be replaced with ‘human effort’.

Not wanting to take any chances, I personally have stopped ordering Manchurian chicken and switched loyalties to Liverpool from Manchester United.

Many years ago, when I was starting out in a career in words, the publisher Ravi Dayal gave me some invaluable advice: “While listing points, it should always be ‘First’, never ‘Firstly’”. Once the tone is set with ‘First’, Dayal continued, you are allowed to go on with the rest of the “lys”. So: First, Secondly, Thirdly, Fourthly... Eleventhly? I’m not so sure.

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Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India

Published on August 02, 2019
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