The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, December 1, 2002
Lead Article

Words don’t live in dictionaries, they live in the mind!
R. K. Murthi

THAT the English language is undergoing rapid changes, I don’t deny. Nor do I question the wisdom latent in the quotable quote, The old order changeth, yielding place to new.

I accept the changes in my stride. Nobody, who is progressive, by temperament, ever gets rattled by changes. I add, as an after-thought, that I am a progressive, not a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. I turn that phrase around and gain a gut feeling that modernism and I are two sides of the same coin.

This personal image, which I have carved out for myself, helps me swing high with the changes which every passing day inducts, without the slightest discomfort. By such quick and easy acceptance of the transformations, which mark the imprints of modernity, I boost my self-confidence.

There is nothing that serves a man as well as self-confidence. For, self-confidence, if one can define it in simple language, is faith in oneself. Since the world at large is almost always at work to dilute, if not destroy, a man’s faith in himself, since every man is in the rat race and is crawling to get on top of the shoulders of the mass of humanity vying with him for top honours, success is hard to come by. Only the person who has inexhaustible reserves of self-confidence ever gets around the challenges, posed by his competitors, and gets a chance to taste success.

I can claim, therefore, with justifiable pride, that I am one of those who believe that a blend of the old and the new gives flavour to the language.


Something deep with me rumbles, like a volcano, suddenly quivered to a pitch, reminded that it had slumbered for long and that the time had come for it to prove that its fiery fury is not a thing of the past, turning me, inside out. My eyelashes dance up and down; my round big eyes roll; my nostrils flutter like leaves in a storm. My forehead has creases, all over, etched by the invisible hand of the fury within.

If Ramanand Sagar were around, he would have immediately signed me for the role of Lord Shiva and launched the production of a Shiv Lila. He would have started counting the chicks and begun to dream of the millions he would rake up through extending the serial to at least 156 weeks and by selling the rights for the cassettes later.

What aberration has transformed me from an equitable, unabrasive man into a replica of the God of Death, the ever-revered Lord Shiva, and performing the tandav.

Behind my rage and fury lies a literary aberration, the odd phrase, Late recently. This strange combination of words catches my attention from among the mountain of words, in a report in a national newspaper, under the headline, Stolen Keys, that read: "Three stolen keys to Windsor palace were recovered late recently, the police said."

I can’t say, with certainty, how Webster would have reacted to this strange combination. However I have a hunch that his reaction would have been devastating, almost as severe as the explosion of a million suns.

Mind you, I am not exaggerating. Webster held himself to be a defender of the English language and spared none who gave cause for offence. He riled at those who indulged in combinations of words which did not jell well in his ears. He became an one-man brigade, taking on anyone who ever gave cause for offence by displaying a casual or careless or a lackadaisical approach to the language.

He showed those who vibed with terms like ‘true fact’ and ‘really genuine’ their place. He shooed them down, rapped them, sending shock waves through their systems, as penalty for causing damage to the language. His emotions were very much akin to those of a father, who chaperoned his daughter and heard a wayward pedestrian whistling at her.

He rapped the miscreants, where it hurt most, with verbal barbs. He told them, in no uncertain terms, that he won’t let them get away with violations of the strait jacket in which he dressed the language.

Webster did try his level best, so long as he was around, to defend his perspective of how the English language should be used. By such staunch dedication to the cause did he find his road to immortality.

But immortality doesn’t confer on a mortal deathlessness. Webster left the scene. In his place came a band of defenders of the language’s right to right usage, men like William Safire, Philip Howard and Bidyut Sarkar.

However, the language is now breaking the barriers of correct conduct and courting all and sundry, driving home a point which Virginia Woolf projected, decades ago. Speaking of the amoral and immoral dalliance of the English language, when it comes to enriching itself by enlarging the vocabulary and inducting new words, she commented: "Words are the wildest, fiercest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things. Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind.... And how do they live in the mind? Variously and strangely, as much as human beings live, by ranging hither and thither, by falling in love and mating together... Royal words mate with commoners. English words marry French words, German words, Indian words, Negro words, if they have a fancy. Indeed the less we enquire into the past of our dear Mother English, the better it will be for that lady’s reputation. For she had gone a-roving, a-roving fair maid."

No wonder the pundits find themselves submerged by a deluge of wrong usages of the language. It pains me to gloat over the term "Late recently." I view it as a monstrosity, which can go hand in hand with the ad by a shop, selling leather goods, which read, genuine pseudo and leather jackets. Shock waves of anger work their way through me. My friend, a doctor, who walks in and finds me red with rage, tells me, "If you don’t control your anger, you will become Mr Late Recently!"