THE world we live in is in disarray. There are so many of us and with so many diversities that we have always needed to fall back on language; a very fluid system of signs that decodes and compresses information. When the English language was evolving into Middle English, it drew from the Latin, the Greek and the French. When it began to travel to different parts of the world for the purposes of trade and conquest, it borrowed from the languages available in the different cultures it interacted with.
Naming words or nouns always have a fascinating history attached around them. The word ‘elephant’ for instance. Our photo illustrated primers in English, now invariably say ‘e’ for elephant, instead of the more humdrum ‘ear’ or ‘eye’.
Elephants belong to Africa and Asia and there are innumerable names for elephants in African, Asian and Indian languages. The ears of the African elephant are very large and keep it cool in the heat. The Asian elephant has smaller ears. African elephants were possibly used in battles at Carthage. The Greek ‘elephas’ and Latin ‘elephantus’ refer to ivory, and the word itself seems to be of non- European origin. A colleague suggested that it could be alif+hind, i.e. animal from Hind or India, but I have been unable to trace this connection.
Another delightful reference that my colleague provided related to the word ‘bandicoot’ — a marsupial endemic to Australia and New Guinea — from the Telugu term ‘pandikokku’ (18th century) which means pig-rat.
While the search for word origins remains an engaging pastime, it is also illuminating to see how the ‘elephant’ fared while being classified and documented as a species in the 19th century England. Charles Dickens in Hard Times describes the factory and its working machinery as ‘mad elephants’. A large, exotic animal with abundant energy is divorced from its environment, equated with an enormous machine and presented as deranged, uncontrollable and inimical to humans.
This view of the elephant, generated by the Victorian Age’s distrust of mechanisation is subsequently carried over to negative connotations of brutal wars into which hapless elephants were drafted. The expression ‘seeing an elephant’ apparently highlighted the unpleasant aspects of wars.
When posted in Burma, George Orwell shot an elephant, at a point when it was grazing peacefully, having recovered from running amok previously. Orwell records beinggoaded into the shooting by the ‘Burmans’ in order to enhance his stature, in an essay titled Shooting an Elephant.
Identifying or classifying a living creature does not indicate absolute knowledge or sanction complete control. Orwell’s shooting of the elephant shows the dangers of unthinking prejudices that are forged through language and literature. When inappropriate connections are reiterated, as in the case of identifying machines with mad elephants or viewing elephants as mere beasts of burden or weapons of war, such ways of ‘seeing an elephant’ only promote negative connotations.
A ‘white elephant’ (a rare beast in nature) refers to any project demanding large and usually wasteful capital investment, while ‘elephantiasis’ is an enlargement and thickening of human body parts caused by filarial worms from infected mosquitoes. Both expressions are unkind to this gorgeous, intelligent and mostly peaceful herbivore.
Mastering a language and moving beyond mere functional practice remains an ‘elephantine’ task.
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