From co-brother to out of station: Here are some Indian English expressions you must know

Some 'Indianisms' emerge from translating phrases in local languages

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 29 Sep 2022, 8:56 PM

Last updated: Tue 4 Oct 2022, 9:06 PM

Some months ago we did a pair of columns on Indianisms — those expressions unique to Indian English, from “prepone” to “non-veg”, that are not used in any other form of the language but reflect the way it’s spoken, used and misused in India. But the recent celebration of the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence occasioned a flurry of interest in all things Indian, and prompted many to explore India’s contributions to the language of its former colonisers. This raised a number of additional expressions I had not covered in my previous columns but thought would be useful to share with readers.

Indians are excessively fond of euphemisms: we would rather use a roundabout way of conveying interest in a delicate topic rather than the direct word that foreign English-speakers might. Thus we use “reduced” as a synonym for losing weight (“you’ve reduced?”). Your “intended” spouse is your “would-be” in India. A “loose character” has dubious morals. Women speak of “chums” for menstrual periods — “chum” is old English slang for “pal” and must have been applied since these “chums” are monthly visitors! Asking about “good news” is a polite way of inquiring about pregnancy, and we speak of “issues” when we mean “children” (“you’ve been married for ten years? Any issues?” doesn’t mean “do you have problems in your marriage?” but “do you have any children?”)

Cultural practices and assumptions are inevitably reflected in Indian English. You “belong to” your “native place” rather than simply being “from” there, and your native place might be a “mofussil town”, that is in a rural or provincial area. If you’re not in town, you’re “out of station”. If you meet a lady who is elder to you, she is usually “auntie” even if there is no blood relationship. Relationships matter in India and so terms are invented for which there is no English equivalent: thus your “co-brother” is your wife’s sister’s spouse. There is even a term, going back to the days when travel beyond our shores was a rare and inordinately expensive privilege, for someone who’d come back after sojourning abroad: they were “foreign-returned”. And a unique Indian cultural practice gave us the expression “give me a missed call”, meaning “ring me briefly and hang up so your number shows up on my device and I will call you back at my expense when I am free”. The caller might be an impecunious relative who can’t afford to pay for the call, or merely a junior who would be seen as presumptuous otherwise: the “missed call” addresses both these handicaps.

Then there are Indian formulations that have nothing to do with cultural sensitivities but simply reflect the way we apply certain words: you are sometimes required to “do the needful”; if you do it perfectly, you’ve achieved “cent per cent”, and your friend’s “thanks” is met with “mention not”, rather than “don’t mention it”. We have a noun, “timepass”, for activities to while away one’s idle moments; we “take lunch” rather than “have lunch”, see a “picture” rather than a “movie”, and “put up” somewhere rather than “stay” there. What foreigners call sunglasses are “cooling-glasses”, “goggles” or “glares” in India. We ask for a “cold drink” when we want what Americans call “soda” (and the pompous refer to as an “aerated beverage”), though the drink may not in fact be cold.

Some Indian English expressions emerge from translating phrases in local languages, like “eating my head” for “bothering me”, “sit on her head” for “pressure her”, “I took his class” for “I scolded him”. Others are more modern: an unfamiliar problem is “out of syllabus”, a good experience is “first-class”. Then there’s “rubber” as synonym for “eraser”. In the US a “rubber” is what you use to prevent a mistake; in India you use it after you make one.

Of course some Indianisms are just awkward and arguably wrong, like “God promise” and “mother promise”, to swear upon the divine or your mother, or saying “years back” rather than “years ago”. The telephone has brought about other solecisms: “Hello, Ramu this side” when you mean “Ramu here”, or the stranger on the line who says “Myself Salman, yourself?” I’m tempted to reply “myself gone”, and “cut the call” — that is, hang up!

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