Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 02/21/11 12:53 PM

Humour: English as she is spoke

We don’t need no vocab!


They speak her funnily in different parts of the world, as Sheila Kumar discovers

Let’s face it, the amazing citizens of that amazing country, the US of A, started out tweaking English for pure convenience’s sake.

While the purists raised a querulous eyebrow, stiffened their upper lip and bore a stoic if speaking silence, the rest of us silently cheered the dropping of the ubiquitous ‘u’ (neighbour/labour/honour) and the gratuitous ‘s’ and ‘l’. Checks for cheques, anyone? These people meant business and serious business at that.

Our earliest comparisons of British English vs American English came via the inimitable P G Wodehouse, a Brit who simply loved the US of A.

A heroine of his locked her American fiancée up in a country house and wouldn’t let him out till he used the proper British Received Pronunciation for the word tomato: ‘tomahto’ rather than the Yankee ‘tomayto.’

So, along with giving us Mark Twain and er, Mark Zuckerberg, the Americans also gave us neo-English. And sometimes,  the thought would creep stealthily upon one: was it sheer laziness rather than efficiency of economy, after all?

Rather than say ‘frying pans, sleeping pills, shaving cream’ in full, were they just taking the Sloppy Joe route by drawling ‘fry pans, sleep pills and shave creams’? And sometimes, didn’t it smack of sheer sloppiness, like when they said ‘the team’s away game’ to describe a match the home team had played outside home turf?

The schism grew wider elsewhere. Like when the word ‘impacted’ was used as a verb. ‘It impacted on us,’ they said. ‘It made an impact on us,’ we said, because we spoke the language of those who colonised us.  After which, both sides settled in, happily convinced they have said the right thing.

The beauty of it is, some of that language really works, some of the terms describe the deed and the moment succinctly. Terms like ‘heading south,’ whether it be a collapsing soufflé or a business venture going downhill, tells the dismal tale well.

The word ‘kneecap’ is effectively used to describe the way an unfortunate person has been brought down, as in ‘he was kneecapped.’  As for ‘white knuckle moment’ (to describe a period of intense and undiluted fear), that’s almost poetry.

Before the aforementioned purist or the quasi-purist scoffs that this is pop culture slang, I would like to point out that such terms, when brought into the mainstream media, quickly becomes the lingua du jour.

It’s when rap artiste Pharrel sings a song titled ‘Everyone nose,’ that you sit up startled: is it ironic? Or illiterate? The jury is still out on that one, folks of the English speaking world.

Some of the lingua, now, is downright incomprehensible. ‘Drop serious bank’ is used to describe a serious spender/spendthrift. ‘Bumping uglies’, I blush to tell you, means having sex.

And here’s my personal favourite: ‘when she needs to throw down with the money man.’ I’ll spare you the head-scratching over this one. It means when you need to have a serious talk with your money manager. If you have one.

And so I offer the terms below, absolutely without comment. Make of it what you will. They are a mix of language in common usage and slang but let me add a disclaimer: this is not hip hop or rap lingo. See what I meant by amazing?!

Busting someone on bad behaviour. You know, old-fashioned sneaking about someone’s activities.

I’m not bragging on my outfit here. As in, I’m not boasting about this designer dress that costs a bomb, and which I’m not too sure fits very well.

Doneness. Like asking someone to check the chicken’s ‘doneness.’ Sigh.

She was out more than half her relief money. This, if you do the math, leaves her with just less than half of her relief money.

Since it launched. Yes I know, your English teacher once smacked you for dropping the ‘was.’ Since it was launched, she hissed.

Kick cravings. All about getting de-addicted to your cravings. Including a craving for ye olde English.

Kick off, kick start. To launch something. And then talk of it saying, ‘since it launched….’ Then it all kicks in, as in, it becomes effective.

Kicked back.  Wipe away the image of violence contained in this term; it means to chill, to relax.

Fierce it up. Yup, to spice something up, add enough to the mix to make it edgy, thrilling, anything but dull.

Go-to. Nope, this isn’t what you think it is. It means the last word on something,  and can describe a reliable person, a flattering dress, even comfort food. Quite the go-to term, this one.

Switching it up.  This is something celebs do with practiced ease. What they used to call ‘dressing to the nines.’ But that was another animal, that English.

Getting snotty. No, it’s not about the kid with the perennially running nose, it means getting snooty. Yes, I too think it could be all about spelling errors.

Have a moment. As in, velvet is having a moment. So is Nargis Fakri. You get my drift, don’t you?

You own it. This one’s all about sassy attitude. Like when you act as if you own something, be it the dress you wear, your office cubicle, the world. Nothing timorous about this.

She has the smarts. Once upon a time, long ago and far away, she would have been called intelligent. And if she’s Mensa level, she could be scary smart.

I don’t do wheat or rice… or drugs! The speaker probably doesn’t ‘do’ much English either.

She was in lockdown with her kids. Here the sportif image fits, complete with the inherent violence contained within. Also called a stand-off.

Are you good on remembering to ...? Will you remember to do something? While at it, will you remember to include grammar in your spoken language?

Doctor, everyone talks up hand washing, is that good? Don’t blame the good doc if he/she is befuddled by this query.  The person just wants to know if all the good reports about hand-washing is fact or fiction.

Debate each other. Which makes fuddy-duddies of all of us who say ‘debate with each other.’

Drilled on them. Would you believe, they mean ‘drilled them.’ Er, they also say fry it up for ‘fry it.’

Cover over. Separate out.  We simply say ‘cover. And ‘separate.’ Go figure.

Drunk dialling. To make calls you would never make when sober. Cool term, what?

Weirded out. Come come, you don’t need an explanation for this one, do you?

Before all ye of American origin take aim with poisoned darts, let me hastily add that this article is meant to be taken with a chill pill. All of us are equally fallible, I assure you.

A recent Manchester City Council advert called for a Teenage Pregnancy Implementation Manager. I kid you not.

And way up, in the shadow of snow-clad mountains in Ladakh, I once came upon a sign that advertised the presence of a restroom facility. It read: We answer nature’s call for you. Again, I kid you not.

This ran in DECCAN HERALD of 21 Feb 2011.

EnglishhumourMark TwainPG WodehousePharrelvocabulary

Sheila Kumar • February 21, 2011

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