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The sad slow death of meanings as we have always known them


Bachi Karkaria

Bachi Karkaria’s Erratica and its cheeky sign-off character, Alec Smart, have had a growing league of followers since 1994 when the column began in the Metropolis on Saturday.
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The lexicon is now a laxicon thanks to the cavalier manner in which we keep altering the way we use words. Old meanings are victims of ID theft. Parts of speech behave like quick-change artistes, nouns becoming verbs and vice versa; now all that’s left is for a pronoun to become an anti-noun. This grammar-immune sin-drome is so acute, that opportunistic inflections may well kill the English language faster than a mofussil class teacher.

The latest trigger of my discontent is ‘exceptionalism’. A rash of it has erupted in the past weeks. The epidemiology can be tracked via several members of the commentariat. Being ‘exceptional’ used to be laudable; generations of parents dinned this aim into their hapless kids. The adjective has been extended into an abstract noun, which is now associated with the visibly terrible. The Omniparent had convinced us that we were so exceptional that we could beat Covid simply by beating bartan. Instead, this ‘exceptionalism’ got us knocked out by the second wave. Even our brahmastra, jugaad, is impotent against the fatal shortages.

Other words go zigzag. They change from bad to good and then return to their evil form before you can say ‘Ravana!’ ‘Viral’ used to be a fever that defied explanation (and provided a handy label to clueless doctors). Then, in the context of music videos, tweets, and clips of those you wanted to shame, ‘going viral’ became as desirable as a Big Boss heartthrob, or a poachable politician. Now ‘viral load’ has reverted to its medical avatar.

Words doing sirshanas more smoothly than an Iyengar acolyte had preceded the virus. Years ago, ‘oversight’ moved from an embarrassment  to an imperative, drawing its new power from the monitoring ‘oversee’ rather than the careless ‘overlook’. As for parts of speech, ‘ask’ has turned from verb to noun; newly suffixed, ‘tasked’ has moved in the reverse direction.

And what about ‘whataboutery’? It is a semantic interloper, the bastard child of pronoun and preposition, annoyingly inelegant. But look where it has arrived: At the very centre of political strategy and newshour skullduggery. Fly away, Wren and Martin.

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Alec Smart said: “Everyone has an opinion on how much oxygen to distribute but no one knows how to find it.”



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Disclaimer

This article is intended to bring a smile to your face. Any connection to events and characters in real life is coincidental.



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