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The Danger of Shape-shifting Words


We, the Government

By Hugh and Colleen Gantzer

The Election Commission has given us a break.For a short while we are not beleaguered by chest-thumping finger-pointing accusations and counter-accusations. Some of our friends are dismayed. They feel that politics has descended to the gutter. We don’t agree. Though some of the language used by grass-roots netas might be distasteful to many of us, that is our problem. As recently as thirty years ago, the word “bloody” was not acceptable in drawing-room circles. Fifty years before that the expression “By my lady!”, the predecessor of “bloody”, was considered daring but quite acceptable. Nowadays “bloody” is used freely, without raising many eyebrows.
Once words escape from the pages of dictionaries and the pens of pedants, they take on a life of their own. Today, thanks to Internet and the World Wide Web, words span the globe, leaping over frontiers freely at the speed of light. Words of Indian origin have become especially fashionable, globally, because expat Indian communities have carved a very special niche for themselves. In the US they are the second richest community after the Jews. Professor David Crystal, scholar of the English language, reportedly believes that Hinglish, a blend of Hindi and English, could well become the lingua franca of the UK in the foreseeable future.
Of great allure to hybrid-language speakers are words of uncommon usage resurrected by political apologists. They feel compelled to do so in order to blunt the impact of a statement made, in the heat of a political rally, by a neta at full throttle. Often these expansive assertions sound wonderful when delivered at the hyped-up moment, but are too unreal to be fulfilled. There is an existing English word to explain such ill-considered remarks made by the US president quite often. It is “Trumpery”. This word was coined very long before the present incumbent was elected POTUS. It means ‘showy but worthless’ and is derived from the French word meaning “designed to deceive”. We cannot, however, recall any of Trump’s defenders trying to give a constructive spin to the Don’s frequent departures from the truth. Trump is no orator. In fact he’s a rather bumbling speaker unlike his very articulate predecessor, Obama.
So why isn’t Trump held publically accountable for every word he utters the way Prime Minister Modi has been for promising to put a vast sum of money in every Indian’s account when the wealth, illegally stashed overseas, was returned? For one thing it is absurd to compare our PM’s credibility with our electorate with that of Trump’s standing with the American masses. Secondly, the money has not come back and given the complexities of the intervening laws it is most unlikely that it will be returned in the near future. It has added to the financial clout of the countries in which it has been secreted and they are not likely to take a financial beating just to add to our standing in the eyes of the movers and shakers who meet in Davos! Would we willingly deplete our Treasury in such circumstances? Finally, not even the PM’s worst detractors would accuse him of being a financial dummy. To the contrary. Would such a person not realise what a disastrous effect it would have on the Indian economy if, suddenly, every Indian’s personal wealth jumped by fifteen lakhs? So why did Mr. Modi say this?
To get an answer to this we have to look closely at his cultural background. He has a firm grounding in the Sanskrit tradition. Hyperbole to emphasise a concept is an essential part of the rhetoric of Sanskrit. Did Kalidas intend to create a messenger of love out of a mass of water vapour in Meghdoot? Or was it a way of conjuring up the warm, humid season of pulsating life that is our Indian Monsoon? Similarly, was the universe really created in seven days, according to our Biblical tradition, even before the Sun was born to measure the span of a day?
We do not have to go into the intricacies of the Arabic word Jumla, as adapted by Gujarati speakers, to explain our message. We, the Government, just have to be reasonably logical, slightly well informed and a little fair!