Silver-tongued Orator of the British Empire

As a student, he corrected passages in JC Nesfield’s “English Grammar” (the standard grammar textbooks used in India in those days). He was often consulted over spellings and pronunciations by the English. His mastery over the English language was recognized by King George V, Churchill, Lady Lytton and Lord Balfour. Many rated him among the five best English-language orators of the century. He is the man of whom the Master of Balliol declared, ‘I never knew that the English Language was so beautiful till I heard Sastri speak it.’ He is the man who found 27 mistakes when Gandhiji sent him the first copy of his newspaper “Harijan” for review. He is the man to listen to whom the British Prime Minister Lloyd George postponed a cabinet meeting.  He is the man conferred with the title of ‘Silver-tongued Orator of the British Empire’.

This was Srinivasa Sastri, born to a poor priest in 1869 in the small village of Valangaiman in Tamilnadu. He was a brilliant student who did his education in Kumbakonam. He graduated in Sanskrit and English, and went on to become a teacher, and later the Principal of the Hindu High School, Triplicane, Madras.  Though he went on to be many things—freedom fighter, politician, diplomat, administrator—he probably remained at heart an educator.

His foray into public life began from academic roots—he founded the Madras Teachers’ Guild when he was Headmaster of the Triplicane School. He was also a pioneer of the co-operative movement in the country, and started India’s first co-operative society, the Triplicane Urban Co-operative Society (TUCS) in 1904.

He is said to have been so influenced by a pamphlet written by Gopala Krishna Gokhale that he gave up his job and joined the Servants of India Society, going on to become its President. He joined the Indian National Congress in 1908, and was nominated to the Madras Legislative Council in 1913. He was later also a member of the Privy Council.

He was a part of delegation which visited England in 1919, a delegate to the Imperial Conference and the Second session of the League of Nations in 1921. He played a key role in getting the Government of South Africa to drop legislation which would have led to the segregation of Indians there. In 1927 he was appointed India’s first Agent to South Africa.

Gandhiji and Sastri were lifelong friends, and respected each other deeply. The Mahatma always referred to him as ‘Anna’ , never letting him forget that he was 10 days older! However, Sastri’s views and stands were often controversial. He was seen as too accommodative of British actions. He opposed the Non-cooperation Movement on the grounds that it was subversive of the law and would set a wrong precedent. This and other similar stances brought him in conflict with Nehru and others in the Congress, and he resigned from the Party in 1922, and subsequently founded the Indian Liberal Party.

Late in life, he returned to his first love, academia, serving as Vice Chancellor of the Annamalai University, Chidambaram. He was a legendary teacher. Far ahead of his time, he believed that students were ‘comrades engaged in a common task and whom one should meet with a smiling face not only in the school room but on playfields ..’. He persuaded Mahadeva Iyengar, then Head of the Tamil Research Department of Annamalai, to translate Kalidasan’s epic poem Abhignana Sakuntalam in Tamil. His lectures at the Annamalai University packed the halls, with faculty competing with students for seats.

He headed a Committee set up in 1940 to frame a set of general principles for coining words for scientific and technical terms in vernacular languages. The report of this Committee was controversial, since it recommended the continuation of Sanskrit loan-words in Tamil technical language and this was violently opposed by Tamil adherents.

It was his tenure in Annamalai University that has special meaning for me. At this time, my grandfather Shri Anantavaidhyanathan was Head of the Dept. of Chemistry there, and the Right Honorable Srinivasa Sastri became a family friend, and mentor to my father A. Nagaratnam who was a student there.

Our family dictionary was a Cambridge Dictionary gifted by him to my father with the inscription ‘To Nagaratnam, with a grandfather’s blessings’, and signed. Alas, when my mother closed up her house, the dictionary (still in decent shape, if in two pieces, disappeared).

What a loss of a family heirloom! But still, I like to think that the pages my grubby childhood hands touched, had been touched by the legendary Silver-tongued Orator!

–Meena

He passed away on 17 April 1946. This week marks his death anniversary.

Whistle Away!

Imagine that your school timetable had three periods a week for ‘whistling class!’ What is probably every child’s fantasy is a fact for children who live on La Gomera. No this is not an imaginary land but a real island in the Canary Islands. The island is part of an archipelago in the Atlantic ocean, called The Canaries, located 100 km west of Morocco. The Canary Islands are part of the autonomous communities of Spain. They were originally inhabited by Berbers who were conquered and enslaved by Spanish invaders in the 15th and 16th centuries.  

What sets the island of La Gomera apart is its unique ‘whistling language’ called Silbo Gomero. This is a traditional language which was probably used by the original Berber inhabitants, and then by the indigenous herders for communication among themselves; it was later adopted by local communities who used it as a secret language when threatened by the Spanish invaders. Accounts of 15th century explorers include mention of indigenous people who communicated by whistling. It is believed that these people passed on the language to the first Spanish settlers in the 16th century. Over time the language began to transpose Spanish words from speech into whistling.

Whistling is a perfect way to communicate on the island which is made up of deep valleys and steep ravines, and where houses are located far from each other. When people cannot easily meet face to face, and where written communication is not used, whistling is a way to send the community invitations for feasts, inform of births and deaths, and warn of danger. With favourable wind conditions its sounds could travel up to 3 km. As one of the island’s old whistlers explained “The thing is that here, learning to whistle wasn’t a matter of pleasure. It was an obligation, a necessity. If you didn’t know how to do it, you would have to walk to give a message. And as the houses are far from each other, and there were no roads or phones, whistling was easier than walking.”

Thus evolved a whistling language, officially known as Silbo Gomero, which substitutes whistled sounds that vary by pitch and length for written letters. It is basically the Spanish language in which words are replaced by 2 whistled vowels and 4 consonants. The whistle goes high and low to distinguish one sound from another. The whistle can also be broken to indicate the end of a sentence. In order to amplify the volume as well as to create the necessary distinction the finger is placed in the mouth. Whistling veterans each had their own favoured way to use the finger in the mouth technique—some used only the tip of one or two fingers, some used a finger from each hand, some inserted one bent knuckle into the mouth. But they all knew the language which the whistles produced.

Interestingly Silbo Gomero was a commonly used language on the island until the 1950s. It was used at home and children grew up with it. As with many indigenous languages the use of the language began to decline as native speakers grew old and died, and younger generations began to emigrate; educational institutions gave precedence to the modern Spanish which became the lingua franca of the island. By the 1970s and 80s, there were only a few whistlers remaining. By the end of 1990 there were only about 50 island dwellers who were fluent whistlers, and one entire generation, educated in Spanish, had missed being familiarised of the language.

But linguists and scholars continued to be fascinated by this language. There are a few other whistling languages in the world, among which are the language on the Greek island of Evia, in the town of Kuskoy, eastern Turkey, and in a town of the French Pyrenees. But Silbo Gomera is the one that is still used by the largest community of speakers, and the first one that has been studied in depth.

At end of the 90s there was renewed interest in Silbo. One of the reasons was the initiative to introduce it as a subject at primary school. Since 1999, it has constituted a required subject in the primary and secondary school curriculum. Today children learn it as a second language, where once it may have been the first language they used at home. But the initiative is noteworthy for its attempt at keeping alive a unique  tradition, especially in an age when technology has transformed communication in unimaginable ways.

An important international recognition and step towards its conservation came in 2009, when the Silbo Gomero language was described by UNESCO as “the only whistled language in the world that is fully developed and practiced by a large community,” and added to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

For the few remaining guardians of Silbo Gomera, the whistling language is like the poetry of their island, even though it may not have as much practical use as it used to. They feel “like poetry, whistling does not need to be useful in order to be special and beautiful.”

The island’s initiative to include it in the curriculum is important in that it creates for children a living link to their heritage and history. As one school girl said “It is a way to honour the people that lived here in the past. And to remember where everything came from, that we didn’t start with technology, but from simple beginnings.”

For others it is the fun of learning a “secret” language through which they can communicate. In an age when mobile phones and electronic communication have reached even the remotest parts of the world, the young people of La Gomera are happily adapting to both kinds of communication—Tootle and Tweet!

–Mamata

Zizzer-zazzer-zuzz Dr Seuss

A small news item caught my eye yesterday because it had the name of one of my favourite children’s author–Dr Seuss; and it reminded me that 2 March is his birth anniversary. The news however was somewhat unsettling. It reported that after being in print for almost half a century, six Dr Seuss books will no longer be published because the estate of the deceased author consider that “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” 

In an age that it overly sensitive to the portrayal of different cultures and races, and in the effort to be “politically correct” or “woke” as it is now termed, this seems to be the latest item on the list of vetting children’s books for “appropriate content.”

Curiously, Dr Seuss books have always been more about vocabulary than content. Several generations of children have been introduced to words by being read aloud from his books. It was the simple rhymes and rhythm of his verses that opened up the fun of language, and the characteristic zany drawings that accompanied them that attracted young and old.

Theodor Seuss Geisel was born on March 2, 1904, in Springfield, Massachusetts to German immigrant parents. He left home at the age of 18 to attend Dartmouth College, where he became the editor-in-chief of its humour magazine. He was kicked off the magazine’s staff when he and his friends were caught drinking in their dorm, in violation of the Prohibition era laws. But he continued to contribute to the magazine under the pseudonym Seuss, which was his mother’s maiden name.

After graduating from Dartmouth, Theodor left for England in 1925 to study at the University of Oxford, with plans to become a Professor someday. But as his notebooks from the period indicate, while he diligently took lecture notes initially, soon the pages were filled only with doodles and drawings. In 1927, he dropped out of Oxford and gave up his idea of becoming an academic. Later when he began to make a name as a writer he added ‘Dr.’ to Seuss, as a sort of joke, because his father had always wanted him to get a doctorate and become a professor. And Dr Seuss he became and remained till the end of his days, and even today.

Theodor had always loved to play with words and it was with words and sketches that he began his professional life. On his return to the United States, Theodor worked for a number of years as a freelance magazine cartoonist, selling cartoons and humorous prose pieces to the major humour magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. One of his best known assignments was the humorous advertisements for the bug spray Flit. He went on to create advertising campaigns for several large companies including the Ford Motor Company.

His new avatar as a children’s writer was born with the publication of his first book in 1937. In 1936, Geisel and his wife were returning from an ocean voyage to Europe when the rhythm of the ship’s engines inspired the poem that became his first children’s book: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. But his manuscript was met with rejection from publisher after publisher.

After the 27th publisher rejected his manuscript, Theodor was dejectedly walking on Madison Avenue in New York when he bumped into an old friend from Dartmouth, Mike McClintock, who that very morning had started a job as an editor in the Vanguard Press children’s section. Within hours, the men signed a contract. In 1937 Vanguard Press published And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street. The book was an instant hit and Dr. Seuss began what was to be an extraordinary literary career.   

The outbreak of World War II forced Theodor to temporarily give up writing for children and to devote his talents to the war effort. Working with the Information and Education Division of the U.S. Army, he made documentary and animated films for American soldiers. He also illustrated political cartoons; but his heart was in children’s books.

After the war, Geisel and his wife moved to La Jolla California where he returned to writing children’s books, working hard for hours at juggling words and rhymes and colour palettes to create madcap characters and adventures. He also loved coining playful nonsensical words that were as zany as his characters: Yuzz-a-ma-tuzz, murky-mooshy, gluppity-glup, schloppity shlop—words that children would love to twist their tongue around! It was a few years before his best known book The Cat in the Hat would be written. And this has an interesting background.

In the early 1950s the most widely used early school primers were a series featuring a boy and girl named Dick and Jane who were too neat, clean, and well behaved to be true!. By the mid-fifties some educators began to debate how effective these were in laying the foundation for literacy, and encouraging and exciting early readers.

One of the people who were concerned, and were imagining alternatives was William Spaulding who was then director of the education division at the Houghton Miffin publishing house. In 1955 Spaulding invited Dr Seuss to create a book for six- and seven-year-olds who had already mastered the basic mechanics of reading. He reportedly challenged, “Write me a story that first-graders can’t put down!”

The additional challenge was that Theodor was given a limited list of 250 words that he could use for his story. Theodor decided to quash his frustration by deciding to pick the first two rhyming words that he found in the list and create a story based on those. The words were Cat and Hat! The next challenge was to write the story. It took Theodor nine months to complete The Cat in the Hat—a 236 rhyming word book which while doing its traditional job of a reading primer was also entertaining. It was the story of two children, bored and alone at home who were visited by a cat in a top hat and red bow tie, and their mad capers in one afternoon.

We looked

and we saw him

the cat in the hat!

and he said to us

‘why do you sit there like that?

i know it is wet

and the sun is not sunny

but we can have

lots of good fun that is funny!

When it was published in 1957, the book was met with immediate critical and commercial success. Reviewers saw it as an exciting alternative to traditional primers. Three years after its debut, the book had already sold over a million copies.

The enthusiastic reception of The Cat in the Hat led Geisel to found Beginner Books, a publishing company specializing in easy-to-read books for children.

If 236 words was a challenge he took on successfully, one of his most popular books, Green Eggs and Ham, was the result of a bet that he could not write a book using only 50 words. But he did!

Dr Seuss never began his stories with a moral in mind. He felt that this was the one thing that immediately put children off. He believed in talking to kids not at them. He also cautioned other writers not to patronize children. As he said, “They can smell a phony a mile away. They are the toughest audience to write for.”

However his writing was not just word play; all his stories have an inherent moral, subtly permeating the rollicking words and the insouciant illustrations. With their plot twists and rebellious heroes who do the unexpected, the books cover a wide range of social and environmental issues. The Lorax at one time became a much-quoted environmental fable. His art work had a unique style, generally devoid of straight lines, and characteristic droopy figures.

Dr Seuss became a household name. Between 1937 and 1991, when he died aged 87, he published more than 60 books, which have sold half a billion copies between them–more even than J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books! The books have been translated into many languages. Some of his books were also adapted and made into animated films, TV shows and theatre productions.

I have spent as many hours reading Dr Seuss to my children as they were growing, as I have spent in perusing his books again and again, even when the children had outgrown them. I am sure that similar members of the Seuss fan club have not been unduly tarnished by what today is being perceived as writing and images promoting racial stereotypes, or being culturally insensitive. With six Seuss classics, including his first book And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street ceasing publication and sale, it would be a pity if we were to return to the sanitized versions of children’s books like Dick and Jane.

You’ll come to a place where streets are not marked.

Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked.

A place where you could sprain both your elbow and chin!

Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?

How much can you lose? How much can you win?

(Oh, the Places You’ll Go!)

–Mamata

Another Word For…

Every writer knows well the sudden point in the flow of words where you struggle to find another/better/appropriate word. And where a dictionary will not serve the purpose. That is the time to turn to the trusted Thesaurus with its rich listing of synonyms.

The word thesaurus itself came to the English language in the late 16th century, via Latin, from the Greek word thēsauros meaning ‘storehouse or treasure’. It was used in the early 19th century by archaeologists to denote an ancient treasury, such as that of a temple. Soon after that, the word was metaphorically used to describe a book containing a “treasury” of words or information about a particular field.

In 1852, the English scholar Peter Mark Roget published a book in which he compiled lists of related words which were organised according to specific categories. The book was titled  Thesaurus of English Words, Classified and Arranged as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. This led to the common acceptance of the term “thesaurus” to describe a book of words and their synonyms. In the years to come the word Roget itself became a synonym for Thesaurus.

One would have imagined that the Thesaurus was the magnum opus of its author Peter Roget who spent his life as a wordsmith. In fact, Roget was a multi-faceted individual who wore many hats in his lifetime.

Peter Mark Roget was born on 18 January 1779 in London. His father was a clergyman of Swiss origin, and his mother was the sister of a notable law reformer Sir Samuel Romilly. After the death of his father when Peter was only four years old, the family moved to Edinburgh. The young Peter was a brilliant student, graduating from medical school in Edinburgh at the age of 19. His ardent curiosity led him to research and experiment in numerous fields of knowledge. As a young doctor he published works on tuberculosis, and on the effects of nitrous oxide, known as ‘laughing gas’, then used as an anaesthetic. He then moved on to Bristol and Manchester where he worked as a private physician and also as a tutor.

In 1808 he moved to London, where he continued to pursue his diverse interests in medicine and science. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, Britain’s national academy of science, and served as its secretary for 21 years. The government asked him to explore London’s water system.  He sought to improve sanitation and food preservation, even discussing the concept of a ‘frigidarium’. He helped to found Manchester Medical School and the University of London. He wrote numerous entries for various encyclopaedias. He invented a pocket chessboard, and a new type of slide rule. He was also interested in optics and wrote a paper on how the kaleidoscope could be improved.

While his professional life was marked by prodigious achievements, Peter Roget’s personal life was traumatic and tragic. He hardly knew his father who died when he was very young; his mother suffered from paranoia, and his sister experienced mental breakdowns. His wife died of cancer when she was only 36. And Sir Samuel, his favourite uncle and surrogate father slit his own throat, even as Roget tried to pull the blade from his hand.

Roget himself was afflicted with depression, and developed such a repugnance of dirt and disorder, that would today be diagnosed as OCD. Perhaps as a reaction to all this turmoil, he also became obsessed with numbers and lists. The obsession also worked as therapy.

From the time that he was a young boy, Peter made lists. The process of sorting and classifying provided a sense of order and logic. As early as 1805 when he was 26 years old, he had compiled, for his own personal use, a small indexed catalogue of words which he used to help his prolific writing. He continued with this exercise of classifying and cataloguing words even as he continued his distinguished career in medicine and science.

It is only when he retired from medical practice age the age of 60 that Roget devoted all his time and energy on the project that would, in later years, eclipse all his former achievements.  For four years he worked on the task of arranging ideas, meanings and concepts. The contents were not arranged alphabetically but put in an order where a given idea fitted into his own classification, within six classes: Abstract Relations, Space, Matter, Intellect, Volition, and Affections.

Whereas a conventional dictionary starts with words and provides their meanings, pronunciations, and etymology, Roget’s Thesaurus was the converse, namely, an idea was given alongside the word or words by which that idea could most aptly be expressed. Although philosophically orientated, the Thesaurus was a compendium of thematically arranged concepts, a classification of words by their meaning.

Roget’s Thesaurus was finally published in 1853, when Peter Roget was 74 years old. It had a print run of 1,000 copies. The 15,000 words it contained were arranged conceptually rather than alphabetically, incorporating 1002 concepts. But shortly before publication, he inserted an alphabetical index as an appendix, thus enabling its easier use.

The first American edition of the Thesaurus was published in 1854. In the introduction to this, Roget explained: “The present work is intended to supply, with respect to the English language, a desideratum hitherto unsupplied in any language; namely, a collection of the words it contains and of the idiomatic combinations peculiar to it, arranged, not in alphabetical order as they are in a dictionary, but according to the ideas which they express.” The Thesaurus initially did not do as well in America. It only became popular in the 1920s when the crossword craze swept the United States.

Roget continued to make changes until his death at the age of ninety, by which time there had been twenty-eight editions. His son, John Lewis Roget continued its revision. Roget’s Thesaurus has never been out of print and by its 150th anniversary in 2002 had sold thirty-two million copies. From his original six classes, by the time of the eighth edition in 2019 it included 1,075 word categories.

Today while the word Roget immediately brings to mind the word Thesaurus, its author’s illustrious career in medicine and science is not as well known. His birthday week is a good time to remember the many other words to describe Peter Roget: Physician, physiology expert, mathematician, inventor, investigator, writer, editor and chess whiz.

–Mamata

Conversations in Many Tongues

The Millennial Matriarchs (Meena and Mamata) have been partners in drafting and crafting words for over three decades, co-writing and co-editing numerous publications. 

As fellow environmental educators in CEE at a time when EE was a nascent discipline in India, one of the greatest challenges was how to design and develop communication material that would be meaningful to as wide an audience as possible, in a country with tremendous diversity, not just of language and culture, but also bio-geography as well as experience. How could one share concepts and ideas that were universal, yet communicated in a way that each recipient responded to them with a sense of comfort and familiarity.

One of the important initiatives in this direction was to encourage ‘trans-adaptation’ of our materials and programmes. This became possible with the help of a wide circle of committed fellow educators across the country who volunteered to translate and support the language editions. In the 1980s CEE could proudly claim that one of its seminal publications The Joy of Learning was available in 16 Indian languages. This was in the days when publications were printed and published on paper.

With time, everything moved on—people, as well as technology. While no longer in the same physical space, Meena and Mamata continued to pursue our common love for writing and communicating. We tried to teach ourselves the language of new technologies (albeit it took us longer than many), and to explore new avenues to communicate and connect.

In March 2018, we started this blog www.millennialmatriarchs.com. As the tagline says, it is a blog capturing ‘Musings on Life and Times: Views, Reviews, Previews, Interviews…and Advice’. We took it as a challenge, and therefore as a “learning experience” (as we had done with all our work at CEE!).

With a minimum of two posts a week, it has been indeed been an exhilarating learning experience. It has given us the opportunity to express our angst and our appreciation; to articulate and analyse, and to celebrate and lament. The challenge of a weekly deadline has kept us on our mental toes every day of these three years. It has led us to explore and discover the most amazing variety of topics; to become better researchers; to be more disciplined, as well as better writers. And above all it has given us a voice that has helped us connect—with old friends as well as many new friends, far and wide. It is these conversations that motivate us, encourage us and enthuse us, day after day.

We thought that a wonderful way to extend these conversations and friendships would be to take the blog into many Indian (to start with) languages! And so we reached out to friends who share our wavelength, but also have the facility of writing well in regional languages. And many responded enthusiastically.

We wanted a name that would capture the essence of this of diversity and variety (Vividha), while continuing the common conversation and dialogue (Vada).

So here is https://vividhavaada.in/!

We are starting with Telugu and Tamil, but we hope to see this go into many more languages. These will not be translations, but rather, adaptations into the languages, with relevant context and localization. And we look forward to expanding our multi-lingual family of contributors.

Meet the VVers

Meena Raghunathan:  Environmental educator for two decades and CSR professional for 15 years. CSR, education, pre-school education, skilling and livelihoods are areas of professional interest. Writing and editing are personal passions.

Mamata Pandya: An environmental educator for over three decades, she wears many hats–instructional design consultant, writer, editor, and storyteller. Lover, collector and translator of children’s books, and avid crossword cracker. In a continuous explore, discover, think and share mode.

Bharthi Kode: A development worker by profession and loves to work on the development projects that affect children, youth and women.  Writer, poet and translator. A firm believer in humanity and always finds herself stuck between her desire to do endless things and her love to sleep! The Telugu tongue!

Sumitra Seshan: An executive of over two decades, she runs the operations of her own technology company that has offices in Canada, India and Mexico. She is interested in painting, cooking new recipes and spending time with family. The Tamil tongue!

We welcome you to join us on our journey of Many Ideas. Many Conversations. Many Languages.

Across and Down

1 Across: Word that describes the author of this piece (14 letters).

Answer: Cruciverbalist

Yes, that’s what I am. A crossword lover! My day does not end until I have tackled my three daily crossword puzzles. Over the years while this has become a habit, in recent years I have been not just trying to crack the clues and fill in the blank squares with the right answers, but equally looking more closely at how the clues are framed. And every day, I applaud not so much myself for having got the answers, but even more the creator for the clever wording of the clues.

And as with most things that interest me, I am curious to know what goes on behind the scenes. That led me to the history of the crossword puzzle.

The earliest form may have been simple word games that were published in children’s books in the 19th century in England.  These were called Word Squares where children had to fill in the words to fit the squares so that the words read the same across and down.

Arthur Wynne a young English boy in Liverpool was one of the children who had been taught by his grandfather to solve these puzzles. When he was 19, Arthur, emigrated to America. He went on to work with the newspaper New York World where he managed the jokes and puzzles supplement called Fun. One December day, as Arthur was working on the Christmas Edition of Fun he felt that the readers needed something new and challenging. He remembered the word games he used to play as a child. Drawing upon that memory Wynne designed a numbered, diamond-shape grid with an empty centre. As the first top Across entry, he inserted the word FUN. He fitted in words in the rest of the squares, for which he devised clues. He called this puzzle Word-Cross. An illustrator later accidentally changed Word-Cross to Cross-Word, and Arthur was fine with it, so the name stuck. Later Wynne played around with a variety of shapes and finally settled on the rectangle.

Arthur Wynne’s first Fun word Cross was published in his paper New York World on Sunday 21 December, 1913. The Word-Cross was well received and became a regular feature of the Fun page. Soon after that, World War 1 started. As the war progressed and the newspapers were full of depressing headlines and dire news reports, the crossword became a much needed refuge where readers could temporarily apply their minds to something challenging as well as satisfying. Crosswords became a comforting anchor through the uncertainty of wartime. By the time the war ended crosswords had become immensely popular.

During the early 1920’s other newspapers picked up the newly discovered pastime, and within a decade crossword puzzles were featured in almost all American newspapers. It was in this period crosswords began to assume their familiar form.

Crosswords were now being published in almost all newspapers—except in the New York Times. A 1924 editorial in the Times called crosswords “a primitive sort of mental exercise.” Interestingly, it took another World War for the New York Times to introduce the crossword—two decades after the rest of the newspapers in the USA did. Through the 20s and 30s the New York Times brushed it off as a passing fad, and deemed carrying a crossword on its pages as too low brow. They felt that the paper should hold the reader’s interest without needing to rely on a puzzle. But with the war, they realised the therapeutic value of the crossword. The first New York Times crossword ran on Sunday, February 15, 1942. Today the New York Times crosswords are among the trickiest and cleverest, and ones that solvers most aspire to crack.

After a decade of popularity in America, the crossword crossed the Atlantic. The first crossword to be published in Britain appeared in Pearson’s Magazine in February 1922, and it became very popular. The Times of London, as had the New York Times, initially scoffed at what it called “a menace because it (crossword) is making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society. Everywhere, at every hour of the day, people can be seen quite shamelessly poring over the checker-board diagrams, cudgelling their brains for a four-letter word meaning ‘molten rock’ …”  The Times resisted the popular wave until February 1 1930 when it published its first crossword.

The British crosswords quickly developed their own style. While the American crosswords usually had clues for which the answers were direct, based on general knowledge or word definitions, the British ones were more complex and the clues cleverly worded so as to have double or hidden meanings. And so emerged what became known as Cryptic crosswords. One of the creators of this kind of puzzle was a school master Derrick Somerset Macnutt. He compiled his puzzles under the pseudonym Ximenes, to avoid the wrath of frustrated cruciverbalists who could not crack his cryptic clues!

Simple or cryptic, the crossword was here to stay and developed its own band of followers, who went on to become addicts.

When the world was once again in the throes of World War II, the crossword played a similar role as it did in the first War–providing a respite from the gloom and doom stories on the news pages, and something to do in the blackout hours.  

The crossword had its own intriguing WW II moments. In England, Intelligence Officers found that some of the answers in the The Daily Telegraph’s puzzles were code names for secret undercover war missions. They were worried that crosswords were being used to communicate secret messages. They traced the puzzles back to a mild-mannered headmaster Leonard Dawe. But they could not find anything to incriminate him. The mystery remained unsolved until 1984, when one of Dawe’s former students came forward and said that along with some other students he had helped Dawe fill in his puzzles. The boys had used words that they had heard being used by soldiers in a military camp next to their school. Neither they nor their headmaster had the faintest idea that they had been accidental traitors!

By the time the war ended in 1945, for crossword solvers in Britain and America, it had transitioned from providing solace to becoming a ritual. And the faithful following of cruciverbalists has grown across the world. Today, the internet has brought changes in the form of the crossword, and many today get their daily fix on their computers and smart phones. But its function remains the same—to engage the mind in bringing order out of seeming chaos, and the very personal sense of achievement when the blanks begin to be populated with letters.

1 Down: Crossword lover American President (7 letters)        Answer: Clinton

Cheers to the Cruciverbalists! We have nothing to use but our brains!

–Mamata

The Madness in the Method

A recent piece by one of my favourite columnists bemoaned the fact that there is increasingly reduced use of physical dictionaries because of instant and easy access to online dictionaries.

It made me feel a bit guilty as I have begun to succumb to the same short cut, but I still keep my trusty Concise Oxford Dictionary and my bilingual dictionary within hand’s reach on my table, and yes, I do look up words from these tomes. As my erstwhile colleagues may recall, the COD was a permanent fixture on my desk at work. This old friend continues to give me a sense of familiar comfort, as well as continuity in my work and play with words.

While COD is the friendly go-to dictionary, it is the Oxford English Dictionary or OED, which is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. The OED today, is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words, past and present, from across the English-speaking world. It contains not only not only present-day meanings, but also the history of individual words from over 1000 years of the English language, traced through 3 million quotations from a wide range of sources, from classic literature to cookery books.

What is equally fascinating is the history of the early development of the OED.

Until the 19th century, the English language did not have a complete dictionary. In 1857 the members of the Philological Society of London decided that it was time for a complete re-examination of the language, and embarked on an ambitious project to compile a comprehensive compendium of the English language.

The new dictionary was planned as a four-volume, 6,400-page work that would include all English language vocabulary from the Early Middle English period (1150 AD) onward, plus some earlier words if they had continued to be used into Middle English. It was estimated that the project would be finished in approximately ten years. However, no one realized the full extent of the work, or how long it would take to achieve the final result. After the first grand announcement, the project took a while to take off. And five years after it was launched the editors had only reached as far as the word ‘ant’.

Then in 1879 James Murray a little known school teacher and philologist was given the editorship of this challenging project. His first task was to advertise in all the leading newspapers of the day that the project was looking for ‘volunteers’ in the English-speaking world to send him quotations which would show how the meanings of words had changed over time.

This early experiment in crowdsourcing attracted many volunteers. The most prolific and systematic contributor was a man called Dr William Chester Minor. He regularly sent in meticulously detailed slips tracing the etymology of words, accompanied by relevant examples and quotations. The return address on his letters read simply: Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire.

For almost a decade, Murray assumed that his favourite volunteer was a reclusive doctor of literary tastes with a good deal of leisure. Then, by chance, Murray discovered that Minor was a murderer who had been committed to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, which was less than 40 miles from Oxford where Murray was based. In 1891, ten years after they had started corresponding, Murray visited Broadmoor and met Minor. This was the start of a close friendship between the two men that continued for the next twenty years. And one that enriched the OED immeasurably.

Minor’s own story was tragic, as well as inspiring. Born in America, he qualified as a surgeon and joined the Union Army just before the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. After being released from the Army, Minor left for London in 1871 with his books and paints in the hopes of starting a new and more peaceful life. However the war experiences left deep scars on the sensitive and clever young man. He became delusional and paranoid. In one such moment he unintentionally shot a man and killed him.

Minor’s ‘insanity’ plea helped him to avoid going to prison. But he was incarcerated in the Broadmoor mental asylum in 1872. He was a well-behaved, quiet, scholarly inmate. With the approval of the asylum authorities, and using his US army pension he managed to accumulate and build a library of rare and antique books in his cell. It was this collection that provided the useful information about nearly 10,000 words, and examples of their usage, which he shared with Murray. The subsequent close friendship between the two which was marked by a common love for words and their history, scholarship, mutual respect and drive, was crucial in the compilation of the OED–the last word on words for over a century.

Murray acknowledged Minor’s invaluable contribution when in 1899 he said “we could easily illustrate the last four centuries from his quotations alone.” Murray also petitioned tirelessly for the release of his friend arguing that a mental asylum was no place for a man of his intellectual calibre. Sadly, Minor’s mental condition deteriorated. Finally he was released, and died in obscurity at his home in 1920.

The two men who gave half their lives to a project of unprecedented historical and cultural importance, did not live to see the publication of their magnum opus. It took roughly forty years for the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary to be completed.

So it was, the story that made the words, rather than the words that made the story!

–Mamata

Once Upon a Time…

These four words open up windows to entire universes—unexplored, or familiar. This is how many a story begins. Stories are a life force that have imbued human life with that something extra, since the dawn of civilization. Stories are a way to convey history, culture, language, spirituality, and identity. One way to keep stories alive is storytelling. Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of communication.

20 March is celebrated as World Storytelling Day–a day to remember and remind ourselves of the magic and power of stories. What began in Sweden, on this date in 1991, as All Storytellers Day has now become a global celebration of the art of oral storytelling. On World Storytelling Day, as many people as possible tell and listen to stories in as many languages and at as many places as possible, during the same day and night.

On this day I celebrate a storyteller who collected, recreated, and created a timeless repertoire of stories. Generations of children have grown up with these tales, told and retold by parents and grandparents over the last one hundred years. This was my grandfather Gijubhai Badeka, one of Gujarat’s foremost educationists and storytellers.

In Gujarati, as in most Indian languages, the child reader had remained somewhat neglected till the middle of the nineteenth century. There was hardly any specific literature for children; only stories retold from classical Indian literature, or heroic stories from Western literature, in not very satisfactory translations. Gijubhai pioneered the creation of special literature for children that also contributed to preserving the oral tradition of literature through exploring and compiling the rich legacy of folk literature. His search for folk tales crossed the boundaries of language and country. This journey of exploration he described thus, in his seminal work titled Vaarta nu Shastra (The Art and Craft of Stories) published in 1925. “So many stories have travelled in foreign lands, so many stories have changed their religion and form; it is an adventure to trace their journeys. If we become wandering travellers with the stories, we will discover that we find one story in Tibet and will see the same story in Africa; we will discover the same story wrapped in snow at the North Pole, and yet if we wander in the Arabian desert, there it will be, but uncovered and bare…but still we recognise the story. Some stories adapt to their land, taking on the form and language of their adopted home, while others retain their origins wherever they may settle. Some stories follow the creed of universal brotherhood, they see the world as their home and go wherever they get a chance to serve and please. Some settle firmly in different countries and come to be recognised as belonging to that place. They are then only translated to reach other countries.”

Many of Gijubhai’s stories are members of this travelling band. Gijubjai transformed and localised these stories, so that they are steeped in the sounds and colours of Gujarat, and have today become not only Gujarati, but uniquely ‘Gijubhai’s’ stories. They are simply told tales characterised by a mixture of prose and rhyme. The repetition of rhymes makes for lively storytelling which listeners join in. Gijubhai retold delightful tales of ordinary people, and familiar birds and animals. With equal panache he churned out stories of common folk with common trades—tailors, potters, barbers, shopkeepers, but also kings, queens and princesses. The characters reflect basic human traits—greed, envy, fear, desire for one-upmanship. Animal tales reflect a close and symbiotic relationship between animals and people. Many open with “once upon a time”… and end “happily ever after.” A hundred years after they were written these stories still touch a cord in the child, and also the child in each of us.

Stories are older than us, they are smarter than us, they keep going, and they are a part of us even though we do not realise this. But stories need human beings to reproduce, much as we need food… we need things to keep ourselves alive.

Hungarian-born American polymath Thomas Sebeok said “…what we can do, I think, is try and create stories that are interesting enough and important enough that our grandchildren might want to tell those stories to their grandchildren — because that’s the purpose of stories, that’s what they’re for: They make live worth living and, sometimes, they keep us alive.

In my own small way, I try to carry forward the legacy of my grandfather by translating and retelling these timeless tales.

–Mamata

Forth and Back

“Madam I’m Adam”. When I was young I was amused by this clever phrase because one could read it the same way from left to right and right to left. As my interest in words and love for word play grew along with me, I was always looking for such words or phrases. Somewhere along the way I discovered that a word, sentence, verse, or even number, that reads the same backward or forward was called a Palindrome. The English word Palindrome was created in the early 1600s based on Greek roots that literally mean “running back on itself” (palin meaning ‘again’ or ‘back’, and dromos meaning ‘running’.)

I began to collect examples of these, and was excited whenever I found one; one highlight being ‘A man, a plan, a canal-Panama’. Until I discovered that there were more avid collectors, and loads of such examples. Here is sharing some, from the daily use ones (that we do not even register as being palindromes) to the funny, clever ones.

Family–sweet and simple in any form: Mum, mom, amma, pop, dad, sis.

Moving on to mechanics–rotor, level, racecar, radar, refer, reviver, rotator, and repaper… (graduating to the next level as ‘Won’t I repaper? Repaper it now!’

Some simple (and sometimes silly) ones:

palindrome.jpg
Source: Google

Dennis sinned.

Don’t nod.

Never odd or even.

No lemons, no melon.

We panic in a pew.

Won’t lovers revolt now?

Sir, I demand, I am a maid named Iris.

Eve, mad Adam, Eve!

Never a foot too far, even.

Nurse, I spy gypsies, run!

Delia sailed as sad Elias ailed.

Ned, I am a maiden.

Some clever ones:

A hitman for hire: Murder for a jar of red rum.

A gross creature: Oozy rat in a sanitary zoo.

Call your mother: Mum

Sane advice: Do not start at rats to nod.

Weather forecast: Too hot to hoot.

Teutonic pride: I, man, am regal; a German am I.

Philosophical musing: Do geese see God?

Old cats: Senile felines.

On ET’s menu: UFO tofu

Bad eyesight: Was it a car or a cat I saw?

A moral dilemma: Borrow or rob?

And one curious one–Murdrum (the crime of killing an unknown man).

And our own and bona fide one: Malayalam!

A wonderful one that sounds like what it means: Tattarrattat—meaning a knock on the door. It was coined by James Joyce and used in Ulysses in 1922. It is also the longest palindromic word in the Oxford English Dictionary.

And last but not the least, there is even a palindromic word for an irrational fear of palindromes—aibohphobia! WOW!

–Mamata