A mask by any name wouldn’t be the same

HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR Hamsini | Updated on June 11, 2020 Published on June 11, 2020

Hygiene mask must engineer a cultural shift, to co-exist with Mukhaota, ghunghat

These last few months, you have probably heard the term ‘mask’ more often than you have your own name called out. This goes to show how widely both the government and society in general have accepted the term. But what is the reason behind this widespread adoption? Why didn’t India just choose to call the hygiene mask by one of our local names for face covers?

The straightforward reason is that a universal experience demands a universally recognised term. If what we are going through is the same five countries over, why confuse the issue by devising different names? Fair enough. But there are reasonings backed by deeper thought and analysis that will probably make for a more insightful explanation.

Going back to one of our first questions then, why hasn’t the adoption of hygiene masks in India involved their renaming with a term from our culture? After all, wouldn’t a term in their own language help the masses of India understand the product and its usage much better?

The answer can be found by examining what the Indian equivalents of ‘mask’ mean and connote.

Connotations of deception

The Hindi word mukhaota means façade and carries the connotation of deception. The term is commonly extended to refer to the masks worn during theatre performances. Popular culture also depicts individuals being able to take on personalities that are polar opposites of their own by simply donning a mukhaota. The Urdu equivalent naqaab, usually spotted in the traditional practice of Islamic culture, means veil. Northern Hindu community mirrors a similar concept through the ghunghat. While both entertain diverse connotations, their representation in popular culture often tends to romanticise the feminine beauty they curtain off and the little that they coyly reveal.

And since we are accounting for all kinds of Indian face covers, there is also the unnamed practice of wrapping a dupatta, gamcha, scarf or handkerchief to protect your face from the heat and dust characteristic of India. However, this act of covering up comes with very little metaphorical associations and is largely functional in nature.

Compare these equivalents with the hygiene mask. Despite standing in as dictionary synonyms, they don’t share much similarity with it.

Linguistically considered, the hygiene mask literally ‘masks off’ the wearer from the threats around them. At a basic symbolic level, it represents safety. Then, depending on the kind worn, the meanings grow.

The first kind; the medical mask indicates superior hygiene, seriousness and protective efficacy. The second kind; the home-made mask highlights qualities such as practicality, thrift, accessibility and eco-friendliness. After being endorsed by the Prime Minister, it has also come to take on the value of civic duty. The third and emergent kind, the fashion mask suggests a desire for self-expression amidst the standardisation introduced by hygiene masks.

Given the cultural history they already carry, it doesn’t make sense for Indian equivalents of masks to take on the host of meanings highlighted above. Additionally, the word ‘mask’ comes with a clean slate; it offers itself as an under-used cultural artefact to the pandemic.

The English factor

Beyond comparing individual terms and their connotations, what the English language represents in India also influences our ready acceptance of ‘mask’. Due to our colonial influence and the language’s wide-spread practice across the globe, a comfortable grasp of English is preferred by Indian recruiters when hiring for jobs, especially when they are looking to fill higher-rung positions. This has made English the language of aspiration and opportunity.

With the assimilation of the term ‘mask’, we have also allowed it to become an indicator of scientific rationality; a value that now holds noticeable worth in a country that hasn’t been able to rescue itself from the pandemic through the traditional fixes and religious practices it relies on at times. The only Indian language that has seemingly evolved its own terminology rather than acceptthe global one is Tamil (it has coined muga-kavacham to mean facial armour; interesting, given the war metaphor being used to discuss Covid-19).

Aside from providing better informed answers to the questions posed at the beginning, these insights are indicative of a greater conclusion — that products engineer cultural shifts by adding new concepts and ideas to currently existing cultural consciousness. By bringing about new understandings of the world, they lay the ground for new behaviours to spring up, new markets to be created and for new practices to become culturally normative.

Something to think about as we continue to take on the other cultural transformations that are brought on by the pandemic.



The writer is a leading Indian Semiotician / co-founder of Leapfrog Strategy and Semiofest

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Published on June 11, 2020
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