Indianisms: The creative use of 'Indian-English'

Dubai - Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 11 Nov 2021, 5:24 PM

Many of the readers of the Khaleej Times are Indians, and they will understand if I tell them that I have long immodestly considered myself the inventor of the term “prepone”. I came up with it at St Stephen’s in 1972, used it extensively in conversation and employed it in an article in JS magazine soon after. “Prepone”, as a back-construction from “postpone”, seemed so much simpler to a teenage collegian than clunkily saying, “Could you move that appointment earlier?” or “I would like to advance that deadline” or “Please bring it forward to an earlier date”. Over the years, I was gratified to see how extensively its use had spread in India.

But I was wrong. In keeping with the long-standing wisdom that there is nothing new under the sun, I was told by Catherine Henstridge of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), no less, that they have an example of the use of the word “prepone” from 1913 in the New York Times. It didn’t catch on much in the West, but the proceedings of the 1952 Indian Science Congress reveal that other Indians thought along the same lines: “in Indian villages… demand for power can be preponed or postponed not only by hours but even by days”.

Clearly, the origin of “prepone” has been preponed from 1972 to 1913, and I duly withdraw my claim to its origination. Mind you, I can still make a case, through frequent usage, to being somewhat involved in its popularisation!

Still, the persistence and survival of what is called “Indian English” (often with a sneer, as if to differentiate it from the Queen’s “propah” English) deserves to be taken seriously. Our English, spoken without the shadow of Englishmen looming over us, is a vigorous and local language, which draws strength from local roots. If Americans can say “fall” for autumn and “gotten” for “have got”, though both are archaisms in England itself, why can’t Indians say “furlong”, “fortnight” and “do the needful”, even if these have fallen out of use centuries ago in London? So many words in Indian English, including “prepone”, have stood up to the only test that matters — the test of time and usage. If enough people find a word or phrase useful, it is, to my mind, legitimate.

Indian English is a living, practical language used by millions every day for practical purposes. I am not referring to expressions like satyagraha, namaste or yogi, that have passed into the English language and are used exactly as they are in India. I am referring to the usage of English words differently in India from the Anglophone West. Many phrases we take for granted in ordinary conversation are actually quite unusual abroad — calling elders “auntie” or “uncle”, for instance, or using the expression “non-veg” to convey a willingness to eat meat. That doesn’t make them wrong, or even quaint. It just makes them Indian.

Some Indian English was created by our media and passed into regular usage — “airdash” (“the Chief Minister airdashed to Delhi”) and “history sheeter” (“the police explained that habitual criminal X was a history sheeter”, i.e. that he had a long criminal record). Some, like my “prepone”, came from school and college campuses: “mugging” (cramming hard for an exam, with much rote learning and memorisation involved) uses a word that means two very different things abroad (a criminal assault by a robber, as in “She was the victim of a mugging in a dark alley” or an elaborate and often comically exaggerated expression, as in “he was mugging for the camera”). When an Indian student tells a foreigner he was “mugging for an exam”, bewilderment is guaranteed. Yet it’s a vivid word that conveys exactly what is intended to every user of Indian English.

Some Indianisms are creative uses of an ordinary English word or phrase to reflect a particularly Indian sensibility — such as “kindly adjust”, said apologetically by the seventh person slipping into a bench meant for four. We have nothing to apologise about: we should defiantly celebrate their use as integral parts of our Indian English vocabulary, and I will return to this theme. After all, “we are like that only”. And if you don’t like it, kindly adjust...

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