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Cultural differences

and language
BOOKMARK game but in its popular sense today, it is a per-
son or thing that is set up as an easy target for
VV criticism, abuse or blame. In political cir-
cles, it is often used to deflect attention from
hen Macaulay said in his Minute the real issues and waste opponents’ time.

W on Indian Education, 1835 that

he wanted “a class of persons,
Indian in blood and colour, but English in
Bells and whistles: It usually refers to non-
essential features added to a piece of tech-
nical equipment or a computer program to
taste, in opinion, in morals, and in intel- make it superficially more attractive with-
lect”, he missed out on one crucial point: how out enhancing its main function. It has now
cultural differences often mean that a liter- spread way beyond its American home-
al understanding of what someone says is of- land. In usage, it has widened beyond tech-
ten a world away from real understanding. nical contexts.
We picked up the English language all right Beyond the pale: It means an action
and along with it the opinions, morals and in- that’s regarded as outside the limits of ac-
tellectual apparatus, but did we get the ceptable behaviour, or one that is objec-
metaphors of the language quite right? tionable or improper. “I look upon you,
For instance, how many of us could sir, as a man who has placed himself
decode the irony (and literary allusions) beyond the pale of society… .”
which lies behind the expression “up to a Big cheese: The most influential or im-
point”, which is used to say, “No, not in portant person in a group, though it is often
the slightest”? Did we learn that Brits make used in a derogatory way to refer to some-
their point in an indirect way that plain- body self-important.
speaking Indians, or second-language learn- Blighty: An affectionate way of refer-
ers, find baffling. More examples. “I hear ring to Britain. It is also a mildly disparag-
what you have to say”, which can be tak- ing way by which certain former colonials re-
en to mean, “he accepts my point of view” fer to the UK.
but which really means, “I disagree with Blow the gaff: A slangy reference to
what you say and don’t want to discuss it revealing something that others would
any further”! Similarly, when Brits say, “With keep hidden.
the greatest respect” (which has some- Brownie points: A reward for some small
how crept into Indian English for its wrong favour or as a sign of approbation.
usage), it is an icy put down which could be Bulls and bears: In stock exchange parl-
taken to mean, “I think you are wrong”. You ance, bull and bear relate to being “long” or
could go on giving examples but a quick run- “short” of a particular security. A bear sells
down can be had from Michael Quinion’s shares (sometimes shares s/he doesn’t own);
Why is Q Always Followed by U?: Word-Per- a bull buys shares hoping to sell them at a
fect Answers to Most-Asked Questions About higher price later.
Language (Particular Books, Imprint of Pen- Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth: A very
guin Books, Special Indian Price Rs 399). old expression that refers contemptuously to
Quinion, who had worked as one of the a person who appears gentle or innocent
editors on the massive Oxford English Dic- but isn’t as harmless as he looks.
tionary (OED) and later established his own By and large: In general, on the whole;
website, teases out the everything considered; for the most part.
truth behind the quirks of English language. C3: Bertie Wooster in PG Wodehouse is
As a reference book, he responds to hundreds C3. It comes from some form of govern-
of linguistic queries to which there is no ment grading or rating system. It is the an-
end, given the fact that English today is the tithesis of A1, that is the top of the grade.
world’s lingua franca, borrowing words Can of worms: Origin is difficult to pin
and expressions from all over the world, par- down but it had a great revival with the bank-
ticularly American English that now domi- ing meltdown in 2008. In a metaphorical sense,
nates the spoken and written world. it means to examine some complicated state
Reference books of this kind are easy of affairs.
to read and enjoy but extremely diffi- Chestnut: OED describes it as “plausible”:
cult to review comprehensively: it is easy that old “chestnut”.
because their great advantage is their va- This only takes you halfway down to
riety, the promise of containing something “C”: there’s lot more to explore. But here
for every reader — dipping backwards and are some that you might like to check out be-
forwards, you can put it down, wander cause they are not given in the usual run of
around, and return to it afresh. But they dictionaries: Cloud Nine; cock-and-bull sto-
can’t be covered in any kind of depth ry; cockles of your heart; cock up; compleat
because of the sheer number of entries and complete; cry all the way to the bank;
that attempts to cater to every kind of read- dogsbody; dribs and drabs; dude elephant
er, the commoner and the semi-specialist. in the room; not by a long chalk.
So, stick to the first category for the most There’s a lot more that we think we know
part; you could check out the rest according but usage has changed; we would do well
to your tastes and inclinations. to check it out. In any case, reference books
Aunt Sally: The original Aunt Sally was a of this kind should always be around.