Sunday, October 3, 2010


Buzzwords: The power of newbies
By Rabia Ahmed 
Sunday, 03 Oct, 2010 | 02:57 AM PST |
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Like an elastic band, a language stretches and forms interestingly shaped words as it evolves and develops alongside other languages and cultures. Words enter the porous boundaries of languages from other languages, and become part of the new, host language, sometimes in a fairly straightforward fashion. The word ‘veranda’ entered English from the Urdu word baramada, where it means a place that leads in from the outside.

At other times however, words native to the language take on a new meaning with a twist. The word pukh in Urdu is really the additional little donkey that is hitched to a donkey cart. This isn’t the donkey that does the pulling; it is there just as a prop or an irritant for the donkey that does the real work.

Someone asked an additional secretary, what the meaning of this revered, bureaucratic designation was. The additional secretary pointed to the same little extra donkey, and said, ‘That is an additional secretary!’ 

So anyhow, a ‘pukh’ in common Urdu parlance now is as we all know a useless extra bit of something tacked on to the main issue. 

Someone recently desirous of finding out what time it was went into a shop and asked the shopkeeper kya waqt hai? Interestingly, neither of the two people behind the counter could comprehend what he meant. It wasn’t until he said ‘time kya hai?’ that he got a reply. Hence time from the English language has become a word of common usage in Urdu while waqt it seems has gone out of the window. 

I later discovered that the word ‘time’, wears more than one garb. Years ago when I was getting my house renovated in Lahore, the electrician had made several promises to arrive for the past few days. One day, I lost patience and asked him irritably when exactly did he plan to put in an appearance? He promised to come the following day, saying he would come ‘second time’. 

Totally confused, I asked him whether he had visited once already that I was not aware of; only to find out that in Lahore, there was a new time system in use. 

There was a ‘first time’ which meant a time slot during the morning hours, and a ‘second time’ which meant anytime after that. 

Other words which have disappeared more or less are ghusl khana (while bait ul khala is totally buried and gone) to be replaced by ‘toilet’, or more commonly the ‘washroom’. Bawarchi khana is also hardly ever used (it is always ‘kitchen’), and I doubt if anyone knows the Urdu for a ‘dinner plate’ and ‘glass’?

A constant vigilance for newbies gives linguists a real buzz. There appears to be a mass genocide of some beautiful old terms and a sadistic massacre of others, a kind of meritocracy of words, where the difficult ones fall by the wayside, and the spin-words survive. And that paragraph by the way was a load of codswallop, written only to introduce at least eight words that have filtered into the English language. 

I’d been teaching our driver some written English, and when we came to ‘T’ for table, he was surprised and asked me “Is ‘table’ also used in English?” Just like the American couple who wanted to order pizza in Italy and were most relieved to find that the Italians also called it ‘pizza’. What a delightful coincidence!

Sometimes old words or phrases are combined in different ways to form a new meaning and because of print and electronic media, they come into common usage with greater speed. In this way thos ghiza an Urdu term was a phrase coined by advertisers of a baby’s first solid food, such as cereal. Such words are called ‘neologisms’. Fit faat is another Urdu replacement which means ‘fit and trim’.

An example of a neologism in English is the phrase ‘a catch-22 situation’ which came into almost instant circulation following Joseph Heller’s novel. Other examples are words like ‘Robotics’ and the acronym ‘Laser’ (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation).

Some words take on new meanings, shedding old ones. It isn’t usual for people to describe anyone as a ‘gay sort of person’ anymore, unless they are commenting on the person’s sexuality. 

I have saved the best for last. This little gem was related to us by Faqir Saifuddin at the Faqirkhana here in Lahore. He said he asked someone how his plans were getting on, and was informed sadly that ‘Oh ji, saday plans titanic ho gai nay ‘ meaning that all his plans were ‘Titanic-ed,’ in other words, sunk!

The Titanic sinks once more where no Titanic had sunk before!