As we sat through the Sunday morning physiology revision class, little did we know that we would be heading towards an English language class. The London qualified professor, Mr Subramaniam, a strict no-nonsense man wanted to know the name we would give to one of the layers forming the wall of the uterus, which is adjacent to the innermost mucous membrane that undergoes changes during the menstrual cycle.
Fortunately for me, he started questioning each student as from the back of the amphitheatre. We were a bag of nerves, racking the brain to review hastily our anatomy of the womb. The professor rejected all the answers with a sense of frustration and disappointment in his exam going students, soon due for exams. One was even caught opening her notebook for a quick referral, and was branded sarcastically as a ‘cheater’ (the very one to become the dean of the institution years later!). Some tried to put up to the ordeal with a semblance of an innocent smile or with a honest ‘I don’t know, sir’. After all anatomical and scientific answers were exhausted, my classmates tried lay terms like ‘second’, ‘under’, ‘middle’ layer, to be rejected with some disdain and sneer by the grand Manitou. Could there really be another term? So by the time I was questioned there remained only one term I could fish out from my memory and vocabulary, and with a dry and tremulous voice I uttered ‘underlying’ layer. The Prof was all praise for me. What a narrow escape.
That episode in undergraduate school reminds me of a similar but less stressful exercise at high school where Professor Ramprakash, sidelining from his religious-cum-philosophical discourse, wanted us to give him another English word for ‘consent’ or ‘agree’; he waited patiently (as he alone could do) and scanned our faces through his thick glasses with masterly tolerance as we fumbled, and uttered all sorts of possible answers. We were sure we knew that there could not be another term. And then our colleague Busjeet surprised us by supplying the answer: ‘acquiesce’. For most of us it was a totally new word. The Prof was sincerely all appreciation for him.
Some of us would remember that African visitor to our conference hall in 1966, who talked about his country, with lakes full of water. We adolescents smiled and wondered; lakes were no lakes if they were dry, at least so we supposed. At that time we had not yet heard of a certain Stalin who had dried his best fresh water lake to irrigate his cotton fields, ushering in an ecological disaster. And then in 1967 there was that visiting French professor who tickled our curiosity by talking of humanism; many of us are still wondering what it is all about.
Finding an alternate word must have been the cause of an old bone in Mr Fijac’s throat, I must suppose. This old fatherly gentleman of a mathematician, who taught at high school in the 40s or 50s, somehow related to me how one of his English colleagues always insisted that his students must write their physics homework using alternate or synonymous words. And Mr Fijac wanted to know, with some lingering irritating doubt, how could young students invent new words in science, especially physics. Energy is energy, momentum is momentum.
We will always remember all these vocabulary classes of 1961 where we were ‘forced’ to learn those foreign English words. The teacher had sent us home with extra homework to see how far we had been perusing the set textbook, ‘Coral Island’; but we had conveniently forgotten to do our homework, and would hurriedly copy from the more conscientious classmates on the following day. We would write the word in a left hand side margin and its meaning opposite it. Such a simple homework; but we managed to make a mountain out of a molehill. And sometimes the teacher got tougher and wiser, and stirred that old uncomfortable, small-in-shoe feeling by asking the definition of such and such word. Or, to be fair, Mr Armand Maudave had warned us that we would be questioned on the following day. Yet we managed to skip the revision session at home and convinced ourselves (or prayed) that we would be lucky not to be caught. One good day that handsomely dressed, young, soft-spoken teacher caught me on the wrong foot and, much to my displaced chagrin, awarded me one-hour afternoon arrest for my ignorance. All that for some English word!
Our Adult View
Nowadays as we go back to our ‘Oxford’ to fathom out the depth of that ignorance, we have to admit that we caress the pages of the dictionary with some nostalgia, but with less fear and restraint, as we have no exams to take or teacher to face. Now we do realize that it is a tour into abstract thinking, because the exact word does convey our deepest, finer feelings and meanings to those around us. It is a journey into cognitive science.
The Japanese seem to have some 13 different words to describe happiness! In India, one of the indigenous tribes, the Mundari, has a word to qualify the feeling someone would experience when he commits a horrendous crime, like murder or rape – in private!
All this may drive us to ponder, sometimes, what could have been the first word our ancestors uttered to convey a certain idea or feeling. We may guess that surely it had to do with fear, flight, fight or food, the basic emotional playing fields they would have started life with in the Eastern savannah of Africa.
Each language would boast of having specific words to convey those special feelings and emotions; people foreign to some languages would miss the gist of some words when they use them in their trade. How about that hotel owner who wanted to hype his trade by putting up a big signboard at the entrance to his establishment, and committed a blunder: ‘MELCOWE’; or his promise to quench our thirst with ‘chil bir’. But even in the UK one hospital had a signboard at the entrance advising visitors: ‘For Family Planning pass behind’!
And if ever you decide to bequeath to the national museum a piece of art work, or if ever your children want to recuperate it later then you better specify whether it is a ‘gift’ or a ‘donation’; in one of the case the law may not allow them to get it back.
Those French Words!
And the French words in all that? Come French examination, many a green student would have cursed those grown-up academics who, in the name of a certain puristic philosophy, had invented those hated ‘circumflex’, ‘accent grave’ or ‘aigu’ or giving a gender to all articles, submitting the immature tender brains of innocent children to torture and frustration. Fancy the embarrassment of that Indian English lecturer who wanted badly to define, spell and explain ‘tête-à-tête’ from one of our English texts, and my glee when he pronounced it as ‘tété à tété’. And what to say of that ‘h-muet’, like in ‘homme’, forcing us children to curse desperately about the whys of such misery.
And what could we say of Mr Rose, our strict Standard VI teacher, whose attempt to train us children to pronounce ‘petit’ as a Frenchman would – with puckering of the lips followed by widening of the same – was met with some of us doing just the opposite, by uttering ‘pai tu’. He almost lost his sanity. Whoever said children were a happy lot!
Professionals in law, who surely know their vocabulary, can lecture to us exhaustibly on the difference between ‘possible ‘ and ‘probable’. As children we had heard of that imaginary judge who sent the murderer to be hung rather than hanged. We had a good laugh at his ignorance.
Nowadays, in our professional practice we may meet some English lecturer on the operation table, and find ourselves turned into those teachers we had always looked up to. We would jokingly quiz that stressed patient, by playing level and fair in their own field and to allay his or her fear and anxiety as we prepare to inject our intravenous anaesthetic: ‘Give us a word which changes meaning when we suffix an “s” to it?’ We do supply an example immediately, just to put him at ease: ‘New — news’. ‘Please give me another such word’. By that time consciousness has already receded fast, and a different world has opened up for both anaesthetist (or anaesthesiologist) and patient.
May be he will dream of himself thinking of this and that or ‘these and theses’.
* Published in print edition on 1 April 2016