Saturday, November 3, 2001


BREAK a leg' is usually used to wish a person performing on the stage for the first time. Obviously, it is a wish for good luck, but 'break' a leg? The expression has its origins in superstitious beliefs. It is a wish of good luck, but the words imply just the opposite. Why? It was once common for people to believe in sprites. Sprites were believed to be spirits or ghosts that enjoyed creating havoc and causing trouble. If the sprites heard you ask for something, it was believed that they would try to make the opposite happen. Telling someone to break a leg is an attempt to outsmart the sprites and, in fact, make something good happen. It was a sort of a medieval reverse psychology, which became a popular wish of luck for theatre performers.

When friends get together, it's customary to chew the fat. In these days of calorie-policemen, chewing the fat can't be too common. Yet, it is an enjoyable pastime, sitting together, chatting away. The Inuit Eskimo used to chew pieces of whale blubber almost like chewing gum. The blubber took quite some time to dissolve, so it helped pass the time and also gave the energy required to fight the cold. The idea of passing time pleasantly stuck to the expression even after the nutritionist forbade the whale-fat.

The pickings of war
October 13, 2001
American English
September 29, 2001
September 15, 2001
Foreigners, come to stay
September 1, 2001

Word clusters
August 18, 2001

In the same vein
August 4, 2001
The cyber family
July 21, 2001
Italian friends
July 7, 2001
Random words
June 23, 2001
Mortal practices, immortal words
June 9, 2001
Passage of words
May 26, 2001
Traces of the past
May 12, 2001

Crocodile tears are thought to originate from the story of the deceitful crocodile, but biology gives us another version. When crocodiles bask in the sun they keep their mouths open and this position of the jaw exerts pressure on the tear glands, making the eyes shed tears. Hence, crocodile tears are not real since they are a physical response, not an emotional one.

In order to differentiate between people belonging to one profession but having different dispositions, one often refers to the odd one out as a horse of a different colour. The phrase comes from the custom of horse trade. When a horse is sold, its registration is also transferred. The colour recorded on the registration must match the colour of the horse, otherwise a buyer who suspected that the horse he bought had been substituted by another one could say, "This is a horse of a different colour!" Just as the character of a person is of paramount importance, the colour of a horse is also important.

Several financial institutions declare themselves 'in the red' while writing the declaration in blue ink. Accounts record positive numbers in black ink and negative numbers in red. Operating in the red is to record negative sums, that is to say, losses. There is a bit more history to the red ink. In medieval times, the church, the only center of literacy and learning in the West, maintained meticulous accounting records. Ink was rare and expensive. When monasteries and far-flung churches had little money, domestic animals were bled to get a substitute for ink. As a result, poor financial records were usually written 'in the red'.


Language users may quarrel all they like but the corpus of language recognises no ethnic differences. A major cause of synonymy in Hindi is the large body of words taken from the Muslim culture even when Hindi words exist for the same concepts; for example, amma, ammi and arthi, janaza.

This feature was published on October 27, 2001