Monday, April 5, 2010
The Labour Party plans to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an elected senate. The lords can go bake. A lord originally was the man who guarded loaves of bread, and a lady was the maid who kneaded the dough. Both ‘lord’ and ‘lady’ came from the Old English word for loaf (hlaf). The humble prayer, “O Lord, give us our daily bread”, harks back to flour power.
Hippie flower power influenced Paulo Coelho, whose first ‘drink’ was lethal. His authorised biography, A Warrior’s Life by Fernando Morais, says Paulo “swallowed a fatal mixture of meconium—that is, his own faeces—and the amniotic fluid.” The doctor thought the baby was dead, and pulled him out with forceps. It broke his collarbone. In desperation, his mother prayed to the hospital’s patron saint: ”Please bring back my son! Save him, St Joseph!” Just as a nun was about to give him the last rites, the baby stirred.
Meconium is a baby’s first stools. The word means opium juice. The stuff is as black as opium. There is a lot dark about the writer, who wears black clothes. The name of his best-known book, The Alchemist, comes from the Arabic word al-kimiya. Kimiya was Khemia, the land of black earth, an old name of Egypt.
The biography does not powder Paulo’s profile. No hiding the demented man who dabbled in the dark arts, or the liar who grabbed authorship of a book he did not write. In sex he had peculiar tastes. One of his flings was with an aspiring actress in the one-room apartment of her great-aunt, “before the astonished eyes of the old woman who was deaf, dumb and senile.”
More palatable is the cookery contest called Great British Menu on BBC2. Prince Charles is going to host its final. But the French would say there is nothing great about the British cuisine. Much of British food is bland. The rest look like Madame Tussaud’s inventions.
One of the British delicacies is the black pudding, a sausage made from pork fat and animal blood. Another is the original humble pie, concocted from entrails—umbles—that only the lowly and the starving had the stomach to eat.
“My love is like a red, red rose,” sang the poet Robert Burns. His love for meat was redder. Burns wrote an ode to haggis, a dish that can make vegetarians faint. The Scots made haggis with the sheep’s liver, lungs and heart, which they boiled and minced and mixed with onions, oatmeal and spices. Then they cleaned the sheep’s stomach and filled it with the mixture, sewed up the stomach, and boiled and devoured it. Doctors doing autopsies should make excellent Scottish cooks.
Dr Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic psychiatrist in The Silence of the Lambs, has a more human taste. The movie ends with him telephoning the heroine, Clarice Starling. “I do wish we could chat longer,” he says, “but I am having an old friend for dinner.”
The British cannot resist beef. They even have Beefeaters to guard the Tower of London. These fat men in crimson and orange uniform got their name from the generous portions of beef they ate. Many people confuse them with the Buckingham Palace guards, who look like Russians in their bearskin caps. Beefeaters must be disappointed that Delhi will not serve beef at the Commonwealth Games.
Certain dishes can win medals. Chinese athletes gorged on bull’s pizzles imported from Scotland during the Beijing Olympics. Their medal tally swelled up like the animal organ after the consumption. The Korean soccer star Ji-sung Park, who plays for Manchester United, says he drank frog’s juice for strength.
Canadians love prairie oysters. These are bull’s bollocks. Camel’s feet are cooked and eaten in many countries. But camel’s toe is a visual feast—it is the outline of female genitals seen through tight pants.
*This article appeared in the Indian news magazine The Week (www.the-week.com) in April 2010.
Saturday, March 20, 2010
Some Indians associate “stiff upper lip” with snobbery. The phrase has nothing to do with snobs. To keep a stiff upper lip means "to remain resolute and unemotional in the face of adversity".
The British claim monopoly over stiff upper lip. But the phrase first appeared in American magazines. The novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin used it before Englishmen took to it. As a slave trader takes Uncle Tom away, young George Shelby ties a dollar around his neck and tells him, “Goodby Uncle Tom, keep a stiff upper lip.”
Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, complimented the novelist, Harriet Beecher Stowe. He said, “This is the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war.” She later said, “God wrote the book. I took His dictation.”
W.B. Yeats writes about stiff upper lip in The Celtic Twilight. The captain of a ship tells him about his prayer—“O Lord, give me a stiff upper lip.” Yeats asks him what it means. “It means,” says the captain, “that when they come to me some night and wake me up and say, ‘Captain, we’re going down,’ I wouldn’t make a fool o’ meself.”
If cameras don’t lie, godman Nithyananda made a fool of himself when he let an actress go down on him and take his dictation. He was stiff no doubt, but not stoic, during the lip service. Morals come after orals.
The movie Carry on Up the Khyber makes fun of stiff upper lip. Afghan warlords in it are in awe of the Foot and Mouth regiment because these British soldiers go bare under their kilts. When rumours of a soldier wearing underpants spread, the warlords attack the British governor’s palace. The governor and his dinner guests keep their poise even as the roof crumbles on their plates. The soldiers repel the enemy by lifting their kilts.
Hemingway would call it “grace under pressure”. This famous phrase has a curious side: he hated his mother, Grace. She wrote excellent prose and skilful verse, painted and sang well, says the historian Paul Johnson in Intellectuals. Hemingway rejected everything she valued—even her God and her writing style—and treated her as an enemy.
Grace washed his mouth with bitter soap if she caught him swearing or lying. It had no effect. Wounded in war, Hemingway lied that he had been shot in the scrotum and had to rest his testicles on a pillow. A peacetime lie was more colourful: a Sicilian woman shut him up in her hotel and “hid his clothes so he was forced to fornicate with her for a week”.
General Lanham, a friend of his, writes: “He always referred to his mother as ‘that bitch’. He must have told me a thousand times how much he hated her and in how many ways.”
Afghans love India as much. The Taliban say India’s Great Game is up. They want India to close all consulates and leave. One of these establishments may well spring up in Jaffna.
Khyber Pass is Cockney rhyming slang for ass. Elephant Pass has no such linguistic backside. The isthmus owes its name to a rare elephant that crossed into Jaffna, where the water is too salty for elephants to survive. Eating rice cooked in Jaffna is an ordeal for humans. The salty diet makes people hyper-tense. They live the phrase “to jump salty”, which means “to fly into a sudden rage”. Salt must have kept the Liberation Tigers going.
Afghanistan has no pigs. Miangul Aurangzeb, former governor of Baluchistan, claims the Pushto word for pig is Sarkozy. General Ayub Khan was his father-in-law. But he seems more proud of his nephew and son-in-law Akbar Zeb, the Pak high commissioner to Canada. Miangul says Saudi Arabia refused to accept Akbar Zeb as ambassador because Zeb in Arabic means penis. And Akbar means great. “I wonder what my nephew thinks of all this,” writes Miangul in an email to Wicked Word. “Our whole family are Zebs.”
Keep the pecker up, Zeb!
*This article appeared in the Indian news magazine The Week (www.the-week.com) in March 2010.
Saturday, March 6, 2010
Cookbook writers can whip up wacky titles. Tushita Patel has named her book Flash in the Pan. Though clever, it smells of gunpowder.
The phrase “flash in the pan” comes from a pan in the old flintlock gun. The pan, with a lid, held a trace of gunpowder. On pulling the trigger, the flint hit the pan, causing a flash, which ignited the load of gunpowder in the barrel for the bullet to fly. Sometimes the flash did not ignite the load. Shooters called this failure a flash in the pan.
Writers used it to describe a “failure after a promising start”. Later it came to mean a “brief spurt of success”. The phrase had little to do with cooking or gold panning—or flipping one’s lid and flashing one’s privates.
Captain Cook’s name for Hawaii was Sandwich Islands. He named it after his mentor, the fourth earl of Sandwich. While gambling, the earl hated to leave for dinner, and asked for slices of bread packed with meat. People who saw him eat it named it sandwich.
Batter he may not have liked; but banter he did. He teased the actor Samuel Foote, saying he would either die of syphilis or hang from a rope. “My lord,” Foote retorted, “that will depend upon one of two contingencies—whether I embrace your lordship’s mistress or your lordship’s principles.”
Captain Gopinath declined a sandwich massage in a Phuket hotel, but ordered a masseuse each for himself and his Deccan Aviation partner, the pious K.J. Samuel. They were sharing a room. Sam spoiled the fun, says Gopinath in his autobiography, Simply Fly.
On another page, the author massages his ego and his fly. A female trekker befriends him as he explores the Grand Canyon. They swim naked in the river Colorado, pitch a tent, cook a meal and hit the bed. “I still remember the night vividly,” he writes.
The captain based his principles on the Kipling poem titled If. He memorised it at the National Defence Academy. It is framed and kept on every NDA cadet’s desk. The players’ entrance to Wimbledon’s centre court bears these lines from the poem: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two impostors just the same.”
But ‘if’ does not interest P. Chidambaram, who is willing to date the Maoists. “I would like no ifs, no buts and no conditions,” he said, asking them for a simple statement abjuring violence. It is no longer a class war between the bourgeoisie and the booboisie. It is danse macabre, the dance of death.
Bihar knows how to sidestep the dance. It is slipping out of the BIMARU group with a healthy economic growth rate. The legislator Shyam Bahadur Singh displayed another side of the state when he gyrated with dancing bar girls in Patna. He thrust his hips at them and wriggled like a man bitten by tarantula.
The Italian town Taranto yielded the word tarantula, though it had no such species. It harboured only the milder wolf spiders. A dance of the town, called tarantella, apparently could give relief from spider bite. Doctors thought the dance was a hysterical response to a strong urge to wriggle. The Pelvis of Patna has this urge, no doubt. He should not delay calling his voters for a lap dance.
Raveena Tandon danced into stardom with the song Tu cheez badi hai mast mast in 1994. The suggestive Persian word cheez, meaning thing, led to the English phrase big cheese. Big cheese originally meant first-rate in quality, the real thing. Later it signified an important person, a big fish.
‘Mast’ also is of Persian origin, meaning intoxicated. It is another word for the elephant’s musth. Musk is more exciting. It descended from the Sanskrit muska (testicle), as the ancients mistook the source of the aroma. But they didn’t go wrong with mushkara (bully in Sanskrit). He is one with large orchids.
*This article appeared in the Indian news magazine The Week (www.the-week.com) in March 2010.
Thursday, February 25, 2010
Romans were keen bird watchers. They had priests, called augurs, who studied vultures and other birds of omen. Augurs watched the flight of birds, their feeding and their singing, and predicted auspicious times for inaugurations. The words augur, inauguration, auspicious and auspices all come from the Latin avis, meaning bird.
The biologist Thomas Huxley loved birds, but didn’t care two hoots about omens. The rationalist was neither a believer nor an atheist. He called himself an agnostic—a word he invented in 1870 by prefixing ‘a-’ to Gnostic. A Gnostic is one who knows. Huxley was better known as the defender of evolution who called himself “Darwin’s bulldog”. He asserted that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Scientists last month proved him right, after studying a fossil found in China.
Canary evolved from canines. The bird was native to the Canary Islands, which got its name from the large dogs (canis in Latin) that roamed the islands. The place, in turn, lent its name to the bird. But some Canarians growl that it is all a canard. They say Romans named the place after seals called sea dogs.
Frenchmen eat canard. It is their word for duck. The English word canard, meaning false report, came from the French saying vendre un canard à moitié—that is, to half-sell a duck. If you half-sell a duck, you are playing a hoax on the buyer.
The forces fighting the Maoists dismiss reports of state terror as canards. There is no collateral damage, says P. Chidambaram. But officers on the Maoist hunt would like some airborne action and have asked for helicopters. If Indians could strafe Nagaland and Mizoram in the past, why deny them the pleasure in the drone age.
Germans chanted Gott strafe England during World War I. It meant God punish England, a pun on the anthem God Save the King. They printed the phrase on buttons, badges and wedding rings. It became a greeting that rivalled Guten Tag. But they admired Roland Garros, the French aviator who found a way to fire through the propeller blades of his plane in dogfights. They copied his technique. An American newspaper called him ‘ace’ when he shot down five German planes.
Tennis ace Andre Agassi loved to give the bird—a gesture with the middle finger. He writes about four dogs in his autobiography, Open, and senses ill omens in two of them. One is a dog that his first wife, Brooke Shields, tattooed on her hip without telling him. Another, her albino pit bull called Sam, eyeballs him all the time. The marriage goes to the dogs.
The presence of dogs in a Paris restaurant unsettles him at the Roland Garros in 1988. He writes: “The first time I walk into a café, on the Champs-Elysees, a dog raises its leg and unleashes a stream of pee against the table next to mine.”
Agassi is all praise for the fourth dog, which appears at a match in Indianapolis in 1996. He is well ahead of his opponent, Daniel Nestor, who breaks his serve. In a fit of anger, Agassi whacks the ball out of the stadium and abuses the umpire and referee with a word that rhymes with duck. They stop the match and declare Nestor winner.
“The fans start a riot,” Agassi writes. “...They are booing, firing seat cushions and water bottles into the court.” The tournament mascot, a dog, trots onto the court. “He reaches the middle of the net, lifts his hind leg and pees. I couldn’t agree more. He makes a jaunty exit. I’m right behind him, ducking my head, dragging my tennis bag.”
The words tennis, tenure and lieutenant descended from the Latin word tenir, meaning to hold. Lieutenant was one who held tenure in place of another person. Its American pronunciation, lieu tenant, reveals the root. Lieutenant generals facing court martial in the Sukhna case should court the bawdy poet Martial. He can teach them how to give everyone the bird.
*This article appeared in the Indian news magazine The Week (www.the-week.com) in February 2010.
Saturday, February 6, 2010
Dementors in Harry Potter suck the soul out of people. Ron Weasley is terrified of them. Weasel words in English act like Dementors. They suck the life out of sentences, like the weasel sucking the yolk out of an egg without breaking the shell.
Weasel words are misleading or evasive words. “Interestingly” at the beginning of a sentence can be a weasel word. What follows often is uninteresting. “Downsizing” is another kind of weasel word, a favourite of management morons. It bandages the wounds of job loss and masks the pain. “Collateral damage” was a more cruel one. For the Iraqi people, it was nothing short of genocide.
An obscure writer, Stewart Chaplin, coined the term weasel words in a short story he wrote in The Century Magazine in 1900. Theodore Roosevelt stole it a decade later to slam Woodrow Wilson’s writings. When accused of plagiarism, Roosevelt said he had learnt the term from a hunting guide years before Chaplin wrote the short story. Erudite hunting guides must be a species unique to America.
Union Minister Krishna Tirath weaseled out of a tight spot after printing a wrong photograph in a newspaper ad against female foeticide. The goof-up elevated a former Pakistani air chief marshal to an Indian icon. But Tirath quibbled that the “message is more important than the image”. Quibbling is a common definition of weasel words.
The goof-up gave the ad an extended life in the media. It would have got more attention if the ministry had emulated the Canadian newspaper Peterborough Examiner. The paper recently published a photograph of students at a Santa Claus parade. It showed a hunk of a boy from St Peter’s School, surrounded by buxom girls, exulting with his arms up in the air and his peter peeking out of his shorts. The editors noticed the quiet intruder only the morning after.
Mountweazel is no sexually active weasel. The New Yorker magazine found the profile of a Lillian Virginia Mountweazel in the 1975 edition of The New Columbia Encyclopedia in 2005. It said she was a designer and photographer who was born in 1942 and killed at age 31 “in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine.” No such person ever existed. Columbia had created her as a decoy to catch copycats. If some other encyclopedia mentioned Mountweazel as a person, Columbia could confront it for plagiarism. Mountweazel now means a fictitious entry.
Germans have created several fictitious people, as if to atone for the disappearances Hitler ordered. One of them is a diplomat called Edmund Draecke, who “was vice-consul in Bombay in 1911”. Jakob Maria Mierscheid has been a fictitious member of the German parliament since 1979. The parliament web site features him as if he were a real MP, and presents his writings and speeches. It says he breeds stone-eating lice and dome-ringed doves. Both creatures are nonexistent like him.
The Heinrich-Heine University in Dusseldorf boasts a fictitious professor, Ernst Doelle. Deemed universities in India would say this is no big deal. Many of them have fictional campuses. A school campus at Sukhna has held a fascination for General Deepak Kapoor, who likes to fantasise about war on “two fronts”, taking on Pakistan and China simultaneously. Brass hats have a tendency to deteriorate from mentors to tormentors to Dementors.
Kapoor perhaps meant bone china. Englishmen made bone china to compete with imported porcelain. The word porcelain comes from porcellana, the Italian word for cowrie shell which is smooth like china. Porcella in Italian is female piglet. The shells were called porcellana because they resembled the sow’s genitals. This should add to the allure of Bollywood’s porcelain beauties. But think of bologna, the pork sausage, when generals shoot their mouths off—for bologna is also called baloney.
*This article appeared in the Indian news magazine The Week (www.the-week.com) in February 2010.
Saturday, January 23, 2010
Humans hunt for a superconducting metallic rock in the movie Avatar. They call it unobtanium. This word mates ‘unobtainable’ and the ‘-nium’ ending of rare elements. Engineers at a warplane workshop in California found it difficult to obtain titanium from Russia in the 1950s. So they dubbed it unobtanium in jest. Today the word means anything essential that is out of reach.
Unobtanium entered science fiction before the Sanskrit word avatar did. Neal Stephenson introduced avatar in his novel Snow Crash in 1992. He also coined the word metaverse in the novel. But many readers remember the book for vagina dentata, an anti-rape device worn by the character Yours Truly. Its teeth inject a numbing drug into any invasive object to render it limpdick—another humdinger of a word heard in Avatar.
Avatars fascinated the scientist J.B.S. Haldane, who took Indian citizenship in the 1950s. He saw a parallel between Vishnu’s ten avatars and Darwin’s theory of evolution—how life began in water (Matsya avatar) and became amphibian (Kurma), animal on land (Varaha), half-man half-beast (Narasimha), proto human (Vamana), small-brained man (Parasurama) and then fully developed man (Rama, Balarama, Krishna and Kalki).
Haldane was Aldous Huxley’s model for Shearwater in the novel Antic Hay. Huxley describes Shearwater as “the biologist too absorbed in his experiments to notice his friends bedding his wife”. Haldane and Huxley were friends. Haldane conceived the idea of test-tube babies in his book Daedalus. Huxley borrowed it for his Brave New World, where children are born without both parents. They are created in hatcheries and conditioned in sleep.
Deve Gowda slept through his prime ministership. Now he has woken and spoken. He called B.S. Yeddyurappa a “bloody bastard”. But bastards in politics were not always despised. Even official documents described William the Conqueror as William the Bastard. Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour prime minister, was also a love child. So was Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers.
Australians should rename their country as Hindu Kush. The name of the mountain range means Hindu killer. Numerous Indians died while crossing it in winter. But don’t call Australians bastards for the attacks on Indians. The word has no sting Down Under. An Australian cricketer used it against the Bodyline bowler Harold Larwood. When the English captain Douglas Jardine went to the Aussie camp to complain, the Aussie vice-captain Vic Richardson asked his team mates: “OK, which of you bastards called Larwood a bastard, instead of this bastard?”
Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, has a celebrated foul tongue. Obama joked about it at a roast in 2005: “As a young man he had a serious accident with a meat slicing machine. He lost part of his middle finger, and this rendered him practically mute.” Obama harped on it on Mother’s Day last year: “This is a tough holiday for Rahm,” he said. “He’s not used to saying the word ‘day’ after ‘mother’.”
Obama loves the word screw-up, which is no profanity. He uses it as mea culpa. He said “screw-up” three times as president. The provocation the second time was the gatecrashing of his first state dinner for Manmohan Singh two months ago. Singh has no such gift of the gab and sticks to safe words. He described India as a slow elephant at the Pravasi Divas.
The sluggish elephant needs some gingering up. This was a treatment the horse got in the past. A piece of ginger was pushed up its rear to make it sprightly. The word ginger comes from the Sanskrit sringaveram, meaning horn-shaped body. Sringa is related to sringara—the rasa that makes you horny and tempts you to produce bastards.
*This article appeared in the Indian news magazine The Week (the-week.com) in January 2010.
Sunday, January 10, 2010
Abhishek Bachchan, all set to anchor Bingo on boob tube, must be full of beans. Bingo developed from beano, a card game using dried beans, in which players shouted “beano” to declare a winning hand. Toy salesman Edwin Lowe popularised it in New York in 1929. He called it bingo after a player exclaimed “bingo”, instead of “beano”, in her excitement.
Bangalore got its name from beans. So did the Roman consul Fabius, whose family grew the legume. Two other consuls, Lentulus and Piso, owed their names to lentils and peas. The name of the orator Cicero came from chickpeas called cicera.
Cicera became a password in the Sicilian Vespers, an Italian insurrection against French rule in 1282. The rebels killed thousands of French residents in Sicily. The six-day massacre began at the vespers, the evening prayer, on Easter. As Frenchmen tried to pass themselves as Italians, the rebels asked them to pronounce the word cicera. The French could not get it right and were slain.
Shibboleth, a more ancient killer password, meant ear of corn as well as flowing water in Hebrew. The biblical people of Gilead conquered the neighbouring Ephraim and captured the Jordan River fords. Whenever someone wanted to cross the river the men of Gilead asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he replied no, they said, “Now say shibboleth.” They killed him if he mispronounced it as sibbolleth. Ephraimites had no ‘sh’ sound. Forty-two thousand people perished for one sibilant.
Shibboleth later acquired different shades of meaning such as catchword, custom, taboo and outmoded beliefs. Wait for the HRD minister’s education reforms to throw up Kapil sibboleths.
The parsley plant came handy for Dominican president Trujillo’s soldiers in 1937. In six days they massacred 25,000 Haitians who had crossed over to the Dominican Republic. Parsley was prejil in Spanish, the local language. Haitians, whose mother tongue was not Spanish, could not pronounce it. To identify them, the soldiers held up a bunch of parsley and asked them, “What is this?” Those who answered pesi or prersil were butchered.
“Parsley is gharsley,” wrote the poet Ogden Nash about its taste. Trujillo had a ghastly end. He was assassinated in 1961. But he was a true leader who looted his country and rooted with any girl he fancied. He employed an officer in the presidential palace for an unstaunched supply of wenches. An officer on special duty in the Hyderabad Raj Bhavan most likely learnt the ropes under him.
But how I envy N.D. Tiwari! He laid down office in bed. If Gandhi intoned ‘Hey Ram’, Tiwari chanted ‘Harem’. Two girls, naked and nubile, slept on either side of Gandhi. That was the celibate’s way of testing his will-power. An unauthorised erection horrified him once in a blue moon. Tiwari is a master of three Vedas, a trivedi. Blame him not if he tested his willie power with a threesome. At 86, one needs the rope and pulley to hoist the mast.
Eighty-Sixed is a gay novel by David Feinberg, who named his hero B.J. Rosenthal. The Raj Bhavan sting had shots of BJ, which some Hindi speakers pronounce as below-job. The Japanese would mouth it as bro-job. They utter the ‘la’ sound as ‘ra’. American soldiers in the Philippines exploited this tongue trouble to catch Japanese infiltrators in World War II. They asked all suspects to say lallapalooza, which means something outstanding. While it rolled off Filipino tongues, the Japanese could only manage rarraparooza. They got shot for the blur.
Lalu Prasad says Nitish Kumar is no lallapalooza. He says Nitish wasted public money by holding a cabinet meeting on the Ratnagiri hill in Rajgir on December 29. He is right: why go for a cliff, and not a clit? After all, the word means “a little hill” in Greek.
*This article appeared in the Indian news magazine The Week (www.the-week.com) in January 2010.