Saturday, May 27, 2000

Vague words

WHEN placed in a situation where no known word fits in snugly, at times a word is created, made-to-order, so to speak. An incident comes to mind which illustrates this very well. A friend, who is all thumbs when it comes to knitting, recently met a lady who questioned her closely about a pullover she was wearing. The lady assumed that my friend had knitted it but didn’t want to reveal the technique and my friend was getting increasingly exasperated. To cut a long story short, she exclaimed, "But I told you, I don’t knit, I will never knit and I never, ever knat a single sweater in my life!" Now, in no dictionary will one find ‘knat’ as the past tense of knit but this was her way of fitting a word to a situation. Here, knit was there as a starting point. Often words are created out of the blue, having no meaning at all beyond the immediate requirement for them. These are ‘vague words’.

Vague words act as fillers for moments of forgetfulness or haste. They are usually casual, often with whimsical spellings: put the thingummy on the whatsit. They may be phrase words based on a question: what’s-his-name or whadyamecallit. Pseudo-technical but useful non-specific terms are also vague words. Also included are duplications of so and such like old so-and-so and such-and-such person.

  Sometimes, English is used as a visual token of modernity or as a social accessory on items of clothing, writing paper, shopping bags, in advertising or as notices on walls. This is decorative, atmosphere or ornamental English. The messages conveyed are atmospheric, rather than precise or grammatical. An instance here would be the Coca-Cola slogan ‘Eat cricket, sleep cricket, drink only Coca-Cola’.The slogan catches the eye, creates an atmosphere, so who needs precision in meaning? Or when a sports jacket says, ‘Let’s Sport’, using decorative and ornamental language to convey a message beyond the fixed parameters of meaning.

The sixteenth century meaning of mince was ‘to soften,’ suggesting both primness and indirectness. Which explains the expression ‘to mince matters’.The same usage follows for a ‘minced oath’ which is a swear word modified so that it can be used without giving offence.This is done in two ways. One, a nonsense equivalent is created, ‘hell’ becomes ‘heck’ and ‘by God’ becomes ‘by golly’ or ‘by gosh’.Two, an everyday expression of similar sound, length and at times, associated meaning is substituted: bloody becomes ruddy and damn becomes darn.


Hindi has its own classification of vague words. Vague words in Hindi are those which have a host of shaded meanings, they may mean little or nothing and may stand for anything. This includes expressions like bahut accha as well. For instance, admi can mean anything from man to woman to human, including child. Ghumna could be to move, to stroll, to walk, to rotate or revolve.

— Deepti