A word out of place

Saturday, 5 September 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Hurt; anger; anxiety; betrayal: These are only some of the reactions to a word out of place. All it takes for the adrenaline to pump or the blood pressure to rise is a particular combination of letters in an ugly speech – or utterly insensitive sentence – to upset the balance between good and bad. If the word is meant to wound, it can even get ugly.

But there is another reaction to a word out of place that is not uncommon to sensitive readers or hearers. And only recently, your favourite bookworm was privy to that sensation. Even the best-adjusted readers must baulk at the prospect of a word that is so way out of its place that it is an utter anachronism.

There I was skimming and gliding through Romesh Gunesekera’s 2019 offering ‘Sun-catcher’ when a cloud was cast over my mental horizon. Bad enough it was a far cry from the critics’ “exceptionally poised and potent” craftsmanship and “exquisite prose [that] awakens all the senses”. But it gets worse. This was a downright slap in the face of the alert browser. To blithely insert the word ‘ginormous’ in a narrative that was set in the ostensible 1960s Ceylon!

It is a word that came into common parlance only in the 1970s. As late as 1989 was its introduction as slang. And only in 2007 was there an official entry into the hallowed portals of the Oxford English Dictionary, that bible of all true believers in a word in its rightful place and time. 

To see it being blatantly bashed out by an unbeliever on the pages of a book about coming of age in post-colonial Ceylon was positively jarring. Not so ‘wonderful’? FYI: another critic’s words out of place: “Gunasekera conjures strange and wonderful images and writes with a wonderful deftness.”

The word ‘ginormous’ is a portmanteau word coined by the union of ‘gigantic’ with ‘enormous’. Perhaps it was in urban slang much before 1987 (Merriam-Webster). But that hardly excuses the author’s abduction of it in the 2010s and induction into a 1964 milieu. To be fair by this son of our island’s soil, the offending word was first printed in the British ‘Dictionary of Forces’ Slang’ (1948) and then again in the ‘Dictionary of Sailors’ Slang’ (1962). So it is not entirely unconceivable in, say, a novel about colonial military. Of course, this is a tale set in post-independence Ceylon, and there’s nary a sailor or soldier in it.

Maybe we quibble too much about a word? Allow two critics to have three last words each… that Gunesekera is “a master storyteller” whose storytelling is “languorous, atmospheric, imagistic”.

Shall we end even such a brief essay as this sans a foray into Sri Lankan words that have graced the leaves of OED? Far be it from us! Here are a few…

A Ceylon not in Chambers or Cambridge

Asweddumization. From the Sinhala, ‘aswaddanawa’ – or to make cultivable the lands that have lain fallow due to harvesting rain or river water… (Not included in some advanced versions of OED.)

Aiyo(h). From the Sri Lanka – and all right, aiyo! South Asian – interjection or exclamation of surprise, disdain, disgust or despair… (OED: September, 2016.)

The last words

Adrenaline – A chemical secreted by the adrenal medulla of the human kidney gland, in response to stress, which stimulates autonomic nerve action.

Anachronism – 1. Something located at a time when it could not have existed or occurred; 2. An artifact that belongs to another time; and 3. An individual/institution who/that which seems to be displaced in time or who belongs to another age.

Baulk – 1. Pause or hold back in uncertainty or unwillingness; or 2. Refuse to comply.

Ostensible – 1. Appearing as such but not necessarily so; or 2. Represented or appearing as such; pretended.

Portmanteau – A new word formed by joining two others and combining their meanings.

Privy – As an adjective: 1. Hidden from general view or use; or 2. (when followed by ‘to’): informed about something secret or not generally known.