The Smithy of Words

In school, whenever I read the Times of India I would come across many words that were unintelligible to me. So I would inevitably turn to my coveted bilingual (English to Marathi) dictionary that I had forced my parents to buy for me. But looking up the meaning of every difficult word slowed down my reading pace so much that I eventually gave up using the dictionary. And since then I have always found it cumbersome to search for a word in the big fat tome that a dictionary is. (Pocket dictionaries are generally useless because, to fit your pocket, they contain only the most common words.)

A friend of mine, a part-time teacher, narrated an incident that happened in her tuition class. She was teaching her students how to use a dictionary when a bright young girl asked, “Why search so much through the book? I just go on to the dictionary app on my phone and I get not only the meaning but the audio pronunciation as well.” Well, I can’t agree more with that girl’s pragmatic approach. For lazy bums like me, the dictionary app has been a real boon.

The most renowned and authoritative dictionaries in the world, such as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, are also available as smartphone apps. Since the first monolingual English dictionary was published in 1604 by Robert Cawdrey (containing around 2,500 entries), we have come a long way. But lexicographers have toiled for centuries for dictionaries to reach their current stage. Samuel Johnson—probably one of the two most famous lexicographers in the world (the other being Noah Webster)—took nine years to complete his dictionary, while the work on the OED’s first edition went on for 70 years. (Coincidentally, 15 April 2015 marked the 260th anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, which was published in 1755 in London.)

Dictionary-making is a dead serious business. New words are added after rigorous vetting, and sources spanning centuries are constantly checked to fix the correct etymology of words old and new. Samuel Johnson had famously defined a lexicographer as “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.”

But when we unshackle the dictionary from its printed pages and put it on the World Wide Web, it has the potential to transform itself magically. Urban Dictionary, a crowd-sourced initiative which started as a fun project in 1999, is the best example. Urban Dictionary is a place where you will often find the quirkiest, funniest and sometimes very offensive definitions of words. That’s because it does not have any lexicographers, editors or any kind of gatekeepers on its staff. Word entries are submitted by the users and vetted by the users. So a neologism which may take years to appear in OED—or may never appear—can find place of pride in Urban Dictionary almost overnight. Consider these few word entries to sample the ingenuity of Urban Dictionary’s users-cum-amateur lexicographers:

  • College: an expensive daycare centre
  • Stupid: someone who has to look up “stupid” in the dictionary because they don’t know what it means
  • Tequila: a Spanish word meaning, “I don’t remember doing that…”

Aaron Peckham, the company’s founder and chief executive, told the Guardian, “Most dictionaries are objective. Urban Dictionary is completely subjective. It’s not presented as fact, (but) as opinions. I think that can be a lot more valuable.” The robustness and the tongue-in-cheek nature of a project like Urban Dictionary is possible only in the internet era.

Though the immediacy, cheekiness and exuberance of Urban Dictionary are exciting traits, they are not desirable in a standard dictionary. But that doesn’t mean standard dictionaries have not been able to “win the internet.” They are present as stand-alone websites, on social media, and in smartphones. The great thing about the Web is that dictionaries do not face space constraints, and updating old entries or adding new ones is very easy. It is possible that OED’s third edition—on which a team of 70 philologists, including lexicographers, etymologists and pronunciation experts, has been working for the past 20 years—may not be printed at all. Nigel Portwood, the chief executive of Oxford University Press, told the Telegraph as much. “The print dictionary market is just disappearing, it is falling away by tens of percent a year,” he said. Asked if he thought the third edition would be printed, he said: “I don’t think so.”

New technology has significantly reduced the time gap between encountering a difficult word and finding its meaning. Many internet-based products and services dealing with words come with pre-installed dictionaries. Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader has a functionality which allows you to tap on a word for a few milliseconds before its dictionary definition appears. Features like this, which have their genesis in the internet age, are making reading a better experience for not just non-native English speakers but native speakers as well.

(Note: This article was first published in the journal Economic and Political Weekly in the issue dated May 16, 2015.)

The Remains

Sitting on the steps of the backdoor
I look at the sun gliding into the horizon
The waning blob of the reddish tinge
The tinge which I remember
Also adorned your lips so often
The memory of which
I immediately regret
It doesn’t hurt anymore, frankly
The thought of you, I mean
But I can’t help rue
The possibilities
The would-have-beens and could-have-beens
The childish sorrow of the biscuit
Melted in a hot cup of tea
Or the grief of the flower
Plucked before it had the chance
To grow fully
All that remains now is the memory
Of moments we inhaled and exhaled together
Locking our secrets to the wind
Secrets of passion, and dreamy merryland
Which get recycled now
Sitting here on the steps of the backdoor
As each wave of Southwest breeze hits my body
And also that peculiar word
Called Nostalgia!
The sun has gone into oblivion now
But not quite
In the form of moonlight
It’s presence is to be felt again


The evening breeze tries to flip the pages of the daily
As I sit near the window
Crossword puzzle on my lap
I still have that pen you had given me
As a return gift
For the poem I had written for you
And which you had liked a lot
“Damn! What’s the word for this?”
I suddenly feel the urge to shout your name
I am sure you’d have had the answer to this damn clue
As you had
To every question of mine
Not perfect, but always reassuring!

I still feel you in this empty house
In the pillows you’d hit me with to show your appreciation
For my lame jokes
In the nail-paint I had gifted you
To go with your tunic
Or in the dazzling aroma of your perfume wafting
Through my imagination as I enter the bedroom every time

I try to find traces of you
In the books we’d read together
The Calvin and Hobbes coffee mugs we occasionally sat with
The corner seats of our favourite movie theatre
Old, decrepit bookshops; the dingy bars and quaint coffee-shops
But never the graveyard!

English, Mother Tongue and Effective Communication

I love words. I love the way they delight people, make them laugh, blush, enthrall. Words have power — power to transform a dull moment into a cheerful one, anger into laughter, jealousy into love and dislike into companionship. I do not like people who misuse words, abuse them, treat them carelessly: I wish they could understand the beauty words possess, a language as a whole possesses.

Effective communication is important in every sphere of life — from relationships to jobs. India is a multilingual country. Most of us are bilingual and some even trilingual. But the tragedy is, very few of us are proficient in even one language.

A growing number of students are learning in English medium schools. All professional courses are exclusively taught in English. English is the language of the courts and government institutions (at least at the higher levels). It is also the language of mobile phones, computers and internet. It is the language of aspiration. It opens the doors to white collar jobs, and makes the road towards upward mobility easier. If you know English, you have “arrived”. So it is not difficult to understand people’s fascination with English-medium schools or the coaching classes boasting to churn out fluent English speakers in a month or two.

But the starry-eyed obsession with English has at least one major casualty — effective communication. Our pathetic education system ensures that students remain grammatically challenged and have pitiable vocabulary. (Sample this sentence from my textual conversation with a friend: I didn’t knew that. The sentence made me cringe; I felt like throwing my phone away.) Mother tongues remain confined in the four walls of our homes as they do not have “snob” value, nor do they give us fancy jobs in multinational corporations. So no one takes the pains to master them.

Though the importance of English cannot be denied, it doesn’t need to come at the cost of our mother tongues. Indian languages have a history of centuries with a treasure trove of literature and rich vocabulary. You can ignore them at your own peril. Also, there is research which says that students learn English more quickly and effectively if they maintain and develop their proficiency in the mother tongue.

Philosopher and linguist Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” And therefore, bilingualism (or multilingualism — depending on which part of India you live in) is a gift that we Indians are naturally bestowed with and which we rightfully need to acknowledge as such.

Courage — Short Story

I had just moved to a new suburb from the main city. My new job was in town. I used to leave office by 7-7.30 in the evening. It was fairly dark by the time I reached my suburban train station. From there, I used to walk to my apartment. There was a long bridge which I had to cross before I reached my locality and then home. At a distance from the bridge, there was a parallel footpath. Very few people used that footpath. It didn’t have lights, but moonlight and lights from the bridge shone on it. Halfway through that path there was a slight bend where a few women would stand every day. They stood there as if waiting for someone. But looking at their clothes and careless way of standing, I realised they were actually prostitutes. It took me at least a week to reach that conclusion though, as I had never ‘seen’ prostitutes, only heard about them.

I would observe those women every evening while crossing the bridge. They would stand there: sometimes chatting, sometimes quiet, but always swaying their bodies in a particular way; and always clad in sarees. If I were lucky I would get to see one of them walking with a customer, away from the footpath and bridge. I do not know if those prostitutes had rooms of their own or it was the customers’ responsibility to take care of a place. I have no idea how the whole thing worked. I had never visited a brothel or had sex with a sex worker (or anyone for that matter), or ever talked to anyone who had. It intrigued me to think about those sex workers and their customers. How did a customer approach them? What conversation transpired between them? For how long? I never got to see the exact encounter (not that I would have been able to hear anything but I would at least have gotten to see their gestures); whenever I saw the sex worker-customer pair, they were already walking away from the footpath.

I was in my 20s and a virgin, and so I used to think about sex a lot. There used to be oestrus-like periods when I used to think about it even more. While crossing the bridge, whenever I spotted the sex worker-customer pair walking together, it would mildly arouse me. Gradually, I had warmed up to the idea of fantasizing about the sex workers. I wondered what it would be like to have sex with one of them. Would I be able to do it at all? What would her hut be like? Would she patronize me? Would the flesh of a woman who was not only a stranger but a few years older than me, was overly decked up, seemed sort of unkempt even with that extra make-up — would it repulse me? I obviously didn’t have the answers, nor was I very keen to find them. It was just a sort of game I used to play while crossing the bridge. But one day I thought — what if I actually did it? What if I took that footpath, approached the prostitutes, and took one of them with me? I was new in the suburb; no one knew me, so there was no chance of someone identifying me from the bridge.

One day, I decided to take the plunge. I am generally very shy, and utterly at loss for words while talking to strangers. But that day I don’t know how but I was feeling very courageous. I was in a sort of daze. My mind was working in a mysterious way. I was feeling quite concupiscent too. My mind had started working on the fantasies in the office itself. All through the train journey back home, I was imagining stuff I would do to the prostitute once we had reached her hut. It was giving me mild sensations. I had gone in a reverie. I wasn’t aware of anyone around me. I was slightly wet too.

But as my stop came closer, I started to think about the preliminary stuff: how to approach the prostitutes and what to say, etc. I started to imagine scenarios in my mind. I couldn’t come up with a single workable one. I started to become a little worried. How to strike up a conversation? What to say? I decided not to panic, hoping that the plan would work somehow.

It was around 9.30 pm when I got down on the station platform. The station wasn’t crowded. I started walking towards the exit. I took the bridge which led me right outside the station towards the footpath. I had set off on my adventure after all.

I think my mental state was surprisingly normal: I was breathing normally, my steps were steady. I don’t remember what my thoughts were though. I don’t think I was thinking anything anymore. I guess I had given up on coming up with any workable scenario. I was hoping I would come up with something on the spot. But as I started to approach the spot where the prostitutes were standing, I started to shake a little and my heartbeats increased. As I became aware of my perturbation, the pace of my steps increased too. I decided that I couldn’t do it after all. I had taken a glance at the women when I left the station. There were four. I had not even decided which one to choose. But now that question was redundant. I had lost my confidence. I was feeling slightly frightened too. I had given up at the last moment.

But I kept walking on that footpath, a little faster now. When I came closer to the spot where the prostitutes were standing, my heartbeats increased. I started breathing heavily, and when I reached the spot, I almost skipped a few beats. I didn’t have the courage to even slightly tilt my gaze. The pace of my footsteps had now tripled; and as I just passed the prostitutes, one of them yelled in a slightly husky rhythmic voice, “Aye chikane.” God, I had a such terrible impulse to run; run as if I was chased by a tiger. And I did run, eventually, when I was out of their view… I reached my apartment panting heavily.

Obviously, I didn’t take that footpath ever again. And after a few months I left the suburb too.