Living in India for any length of time has its challenges. I came to the realization several years ago that if one does not go with the flow, it can be frustrating to a point that one becomes exasperated. At a basic level one must accept that one is not living in the West where certain conveniences and protocols are the norm – to expect to find a life-style akin to the US in India is a recipe for disillusionment. There are also some cultural differences and customs/etiquette which can be amusing and at other times disconcerting to someone who visits from the West.

For example, it took me a while to get used to the idea that when one is on the phone whether with a stranger or friend or relative, there is no “sign-off” as the conversation ends – they just hang up the phone while I am still waiting to say good-bye!

Which brings me to English as spoken in India. English is not the easiest of languages to learn what with its illogical pronunciations and subtle nuances. As G.K. Chesterton said: “The word “good” has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man.”

Some of the more hilarious and, occasionally frustrating, experiences are with the use of “Indian-English”. I recall calling Asianet who provides my internet service because it was not functioning. The very polite lady in customer service did a little checking and told me that this was a “common problem”. We were conversing in my rather limited Malayalam and I asked her why if it was a common problem steps had not been taken to fix it. I was getting increasingly irate at her apparent lack of responsiveness and constant reiteration that it was a common problem. It took me a while to realize that what she meant by a “common problem” was what in the US would be called a general outage! She probably was at a loss to understand why I was getting on her case about something that she had no control over!

There are many other instances of “Indian English” – essentially a version of English terminology that would have a different connotation in the West but is very much the norm in India. Then there are other instances where words are just misused with humorous results such as a political poster which was prominently displayed in Mumbai! In the interests of full disclosure, it should be noted the quirky indian website is the source for several examples cited here, although I have previously heard most of these examples of Indian-English. The image of the poster shown below provides an example.


With regard to the image, I guess one could say that the congratulations were right from the heart so why not call it “heartly”!

The variations in the use of English words or the “savaging” of the English language is not limited to any particular state within India.

MG Vassanji, who lived in East Africa, in his book, “A Place Within” which he termed his “rediscovery of India”, says he was advised to meet with an influential journalist, “Yum Yum Thomas”, for insights about Kerala. He made numerous inquiries trying to locate the individual. It took him a while before he realized that the person he was to meet was M.M. Thomas with the letter “M” being pronounced the stereotypical Malayalee way!

In Kamla Nagar, Delhi, there was a sign on the window offering “50% discount on Ladies”. As the Quirky Indian states, “it certainly perked up my college libido, and in I went. The ‘uncleji’ behind the counter beamed and rubbed his hands in glee………. I went straight to the point. “Where are the ladies? Can I see them?”, pointing at the sign. Sadly, his completely befuddled look told me my witticism had fallen flat and, not knowing what to do next, I left.”

“Then there were these ubiquitous signs all over Delhi, on the doors or gates of many residences and commercial establishments alike, which gave the name of the person – say an Anil Kumar – and went “Anil Kumar – Entry only from Backside”

There is the story of the husband who brought his wife to a doctor for treatment. On being asked what the problem was, the husband replied, “doctor, my wife, she is not able to pass dung”

Then we have the uniquely Indian-English words like “prepone” which is used quite frequently and is the opposite of “postpone”. When one reschedules an appointment to a later date one postpones it – and when one reschedules it to an earlier date………one prepones it! Makes sense, I guess!

Indians use the word “momento” when referring to a keepsake. It’s actually memento, of course. A business “downed their shutters” means it closed! And there is the uniquely Indian expression “neck to neck” which may conjure images of physical closeness and amorousness but means very crowded!

Then one has the more embarrassing situations. Again quoting the “Quirky Indian”:

“A friend of mine related this hilarious story the other day. Her charming and social mother-in-law, quite the lynchpin of their family’s business enterprises, while talking to her about an error made by one of their managers, said “..and when I learnt about what happened, I went to his room and banged him!”

“Stunned silence from my friend, before she realized that her MIL was using the term as a synonym for ‘reprimand’. Suppressing a giggling fit with some difficulty, she then explained to her MIL that not only was the usage incorrect, it could also be completely misinterpreted – and how! The MIL, a formidable lady, is fortunately not without a sense of humour. She burst into laughter and said “Now I understand why, a few weeks ago, I got a few strange looks from the (mostly young) sales team when I told them that whoever did not meet their targets would be banged by me!”

Now, there’s an incentive or disincentive depending on the MIL’s looks, to either exceed the sales target or deliberately fall short!!

There are, of course, those words and expressions that are not intended to be funny – it is just common usage in India: a “co-brother/co-sister” meaning brother-in-law/sister-in-law, “cousin-brother/sister” referring to a cousin. “What is your good name?” – a very Indian way of asking what is your name?

My knowledge of Malayalam is adequate and that of Hindi is rudimentary but it does not inhibit me from speaking both languages when the occasion arises. I wonder if I savage these languages as much as Mr Jeppier of Tamil Nadu, a lecturer at a college who apparently always spoke in English. I don’t know whether these quotes are just urban legend but here are some gems from the infamous Mr. Jeppier:

His instructions to his students:

“All of you stand in a straight circle.”

When reprimanding a student for interrupting he said: “I talk, he talk, why you middle middle talk?”

Mr Jeppier went to see a movie with his wife. He happened to see one of his students at the theater, though the student did not see them. So the next day at school he tells the male student: “Yesterday I saw you WITH MY WIFE at the cinema theater”

Mr Jeppeir in his class room: “Open the doors of the window. Let the air force come in.

At a college function, Mr Jeppeir had arrived late and the function had begun, so he went to the dais, and said, “sorry I am late, because on the way my car hit two muttons” (meaning goats).

Of course there are variations between the way English is spoken in the US versus the UK. I recall a colleague of mine from years gone by, who arrived in the US from England at the same time I did in 1971. We were on an assignment at a hospital in a small-town in Illinois and he asked the young lady in charge of the Accounting Department if he could borrow a rubber. She looked puzzled and he repeated it, whereupon she burst out laughing! He was educated by one of our American colleagues that in the US, a “rubber” is a condom and the correct term for what he wanted was an eraser!

I have not been immune from similar faux-pas. In the mid-seventies, in a conversation with an acquaintance at work in Chicago, I mentioned we were having house-guests yet again! He commented on how we seemed to have a lot of friends. I told him without any inhibition that “my wife has relations all over the country who visit us”! He counseled my quietly that in the US that statement had a whole different connotation than in England. The correct terminology, in the US, would be to say that she had relatives all over the country. I wondered how many times I had said the same thing to others – who were to embarrassed to correct me!

As customer service gets increasingly outsourced to India, one can understand why so much effort goes into training Indians who will be handling these calls from the US and Britain in the terminology and pronunciation in those countries!

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2 Responses to “The Queen’s English? Bah Humbug!”

  1. Chiku says:

    Quite a lesson in the above quotes. This reminds me of a funny sentence written on a wall in Kaloor,Cochin. It says” No Urine Passing this Area”!!! Great Expressions…!!

  2. hwt says:

    An outstanding share! I have just forwarded
    this onto a colleague who has been conducting a little research
    on this. And he in fact bought me breakfast because I stumbled upon it
    for him… lol. So allow me to reword this…

    . Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending some time to talk about this subject here
    on your website.

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