A Wordy Adventure

 “I’m bored!” How many little boys and girls, across the world, echo the same words. More than ever before, the last two years when the pandemic confined families within four walls, this was the refrain. But this is nothing new.

There once was a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself not just sometimes but always.

That is the opening line of The Phantom Tollbooth, first published in 1961, which went on to become a classic of children’s literature.

The Phantom Tollbooth is the story of Milo, a 10 year-old boy who is utterly bored with everything around him. One day he comes home to finds a mysterious package with a bright blue envelope which reads “For Milo. Who has plenty of time.”

When unpacked it reveals a magical toy tollbooth which he sets up in his room. Having nothing better to do, he drives his toy car through it and there begins his whacky journey through the different realms of language. He is accompanied on his travels by a “watchdog” named Tock—a large dog with an alarm clock for a body. 

Crossing Expectations and going through the Doldrums, Milo heads for Dictionopolis, ruled by King Azaz the Unabridged–Monarch of Letters, Emperor of Phrases, Sentences and Miscellaneous Figures of Speech. He is welcomed by five tall thin gentlemen who introduce themselves as The Duke of Definition, The Minister of Meaning, the Earl of Essence, the Count of Connotation, and The Undersecretary of Understanding.

We offer you the hospitality of our country, nation, state, commonwealth, realm, empire, palatinate, principality.

Do all those words mean the same thing? asked Milo.

Of course, certainly, precisely, exactly, yes, they replied in order. They also explain: Dictionopolis is the place where all the words in the world come from. They’re grown right here in our orchards.

Milo wanders around the marketplace of words where there are thousands of words on sale, with the vendors trying their best to sell theirs. It is here that he meets the giant Spelling Bee, that can spell any word, and who joins him on his travels.

Finally he meets the king who asks him what he can do. Milo has no answer. The King thinks:”What an ordinary little boy. Why my cabinet members can do all sorts of things. The duke here can make mountains out of molehills. The minister splits hairs. The count makes hay while sun shines. The earl leaves no stone unturned. And the undersecretary hangs by a thread.”

And thus Milo embarks on a wordy adventure where the characters indulge in a riot of word play that initially throws Milo into deep confusion, but gradually his curiosity leads him not only to learn new things, but eventually to join in the pun-fun as it were. 

From Dictionopolis to Digitapolis, from the Foothills of Confusion, and over Mountains of Ignorance; through the Valley of Sound and the Forest of Sight; the Sea of Knowledge and Island of Conclusions (he had to jump to get there!), and the Kingdom of Wisdom, Milo encounters an army of new words as he is roped in to rescue the captured princesses of Rhyme and Reason imprisoned in the Castle in the Air, while fighting the fearsome Hate and Malice.

The Phantom Tollbooth is an absolute delight for word lovers such as me. The word play is clever and stimulating, reminding one of the adventures of Alice in Wonderland. When the book was published, several reviewers wondered whether children would even understand so many new and unfamiliar words, and whether they had the ability to really enjoy the play on words. These apprehensions were vindicated when the book sold millions of copies; and continues to remain a favourite even 60 years after it was first published in 1961.

Years later the author Norton Juster explained his approach: My feeling was that there is no such thing as a difficult word. There are only words you don’t know yet, the kind of liberating words that Milo encounters on his adventure. Today’s world of texting and tweeting is quite a different place, but children are still the same as they’ve always been.

The story of how the book came about is equally interesting. Norton Juster was a young architect working in New York. He had received a Ford Foundation grant for a book on cities for children, and spent months researching it. One day, in a restaurant, he overheard a boy asking the question   “What’s the biggest number there is?” That put him on a totally different path.

I started to compose what I thought would be about a child’s confrontation with numbers and words and meanings and other strange concepts that are imposed on children,” he wrote. “I loved the opportunity to turns things upside down and inside out and indulge in all the bad jokes and puns and wordplay that my father had introduced me to when I was growing up.

The grant never fructified into the intended book, but there began the story of The Phantom Tollbooth. Norton recalled: When I wrote the book I really didn’t write it with any sense of mission. I wrote it for my own enjoyment. The book in no way was written to any sense of what it was that children needed or liked.

However, under all the word play is just what children need–a feeling that navigating the world can be an exciting adventure in itself. As Norton puts it: And I think what kids do — it’s a fairly universal kind of thing – I think the general sense of the book – the feeling of it is something most kids experience one way or another. They’re at times disconnected, or they don’t know what to do with themselves. They don’t know why anything is happening. All the things that they’re learning don’t connect to other things. One of the things that happens in your life is you start out learning a million facts and none of them connect to any other facts. As you get older you gradually realize that something you learned over here connects to something you experienced over there. And you start drawing sort of mental lines, and after a while, like when you get to my age, there’s almost nothing that you learned that doesn’t connect with 80,000 other things. So it all has some kind of a meaning and context to it, and I think kids slowly begin to feel that too.

In an age when children have so many distractions, and yet are always “bored” this book encourages them to look anew at the world around them. You have to constantly look at things as if you’ve never seen them before. Or look at them in a way that nobody has ever seen them before. Or turn them over and look at the other side of everything. That is the magic formula.

Serendipitously, at the time Norton was writing the book, his illustrator friend Jules Feiffer, who was also his upstairs neighbour, read some of it and spontaneously produced a bunch of perfectly-suited drawings that brought the characters to life. And The Phantom Tollbooth continues to be loved by children even six decades later.  

I seem to have missed reading this book in my childhood, but I am delighted to have discovered it in the sixth decade of my life. Thank you Evan for sharing this, a favourite childhood read of yours, with me!

–Mamata

Eponyms: When People Become Things

As I wrote last week the evolution of language involves multiple inputs and processes. ‘Clipped’ words often overtake their original abbreviations to take on their own identities. At times, the process goes the other way and words become elongated by being ‘topped’ and ‘tailed’ by other words to gain new meaning and identity.

Place names become words. So when you laugh at a ‘limerick’, drive a ‘limousine’, have a pet ‘alsatian’ or ‘labrador’, play ‘badminton’ or ‘rugby’ or run a ‘marathon’, you are in fact invoking the name of a place that has become synonymous with the object or activity.

Place names may also become easily identifiable product names; as in drinks—Martini, Cognac, Bourbon; or food as in Hamburgers and Frankfurters. 

It is not just names of places but also names of people that have become words in their own right. Today when we use the words, we immediately visualize the object, without having the faintest idea that there was a person that originally gave his or her  name to the thing.

For example the cardigan was named after James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, a British Army major general who led the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. The woollen garment is modelled after the close-fitting knitted wool waistcoat that British officers supposedly wore during the war. The macintosh (or the Englishman’s ubiquitous waterproof coat) was named for Charles Macintosh who invented the waterproofing process that was used in the material for these raincoats. The sandwich is named for an 18th century English aristocrat, the 4th Earl of Sandwich who, as the story goes, ordered his valet to bring him a piece of meat tucked between two slices of bread, so that he would not have to get up from the gambling table for a formal meal.

Perhaps the more commonly known eponyms are the botanical names of plants, many being named after their discoverers. An interesting double link is to be found in the word Nicotine which is named after the tobacco plant Nicotiana tabacum. The botanical name of the plant is derived from the name of the French ambassador Jean Nicot de Villemain, who when visiting Portugal, sent tobacco and seeds to Paris in 1560, presented it to the French King, as something that had medicinal value and protected against illness.

We may not be aware that many other terms in science and technology also reflect the names of their inventors. .

The diesel that powers our vehicles and machines is named after its German inventor-engineer Rudolph Diesel. The ampere is named for French physicist and mathematician André-Marie Ampère (1775–1836), who studied electromagnetism and laid the foundation of electrodynamics. Celsius is named after Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius who first proposed the centigrade scale in 1742, and Fahrenheit is named for the physicist Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit. The ohm (symbol: Ω) is the SI derived unit of electrical resistance, is named after its discoverer German physicist Georg Ohm. And the more familiar term watt, a unit of electrical power, is named after the Scottish engineer and inventor James Watt.

Similarly in medicine a condition originally named after the doctor who first described it, becomes over time, a noun for the condition. Alzheimer’s disease is named after Dr Alois Alzheimer a German psychiatrist and neurologist who first analysed the brain of a woman who had an unusual mental condition and studied the changes in the brain that caused the issues. Similarly Parkinson’s disease is named after Dr James Parkinson who described the condition in 1817. Today it is commonplace to describe a patient suffering from these diseases as simply having Alzheimers or Parkinsons.

All these are examples of eponyms. An eponym is a person, place, or thing after whom or which someone or something is, or is believed to be, named.

There is one other form of eponym. These are words that were initially the name of a particular brand but now are used to reference entire categories of things. One of the most popular eponyms is a band-aid. While band-aid is the name of the brand that makes adhesive bandages, most people use the term to refer to any adhesive bandage, regardless of who makes it. In India at one time Cadbury was the eponym for any chocolate!

And then there is the world of high fashion where people wear Dior, spray Chanel, carry Prada, and travel with Louis Vuitton! Bata is eponymous in India with sturdy, reasonably priced footwear, and generally thought of as a truly India brand. It is interesting that, in fact, the brand was named after Tomas Bat’a who along with his brothers started a family owned business in Czechoslovakia in 1894 to produce sturdy and affordable shoes.. However, I have not met anyone who proudly says “I am the proud owner of a Bata!”

–Mamata

Winning Words

Language is always evolving. While some words have a history that can be traced back over centuries, new terms and new uses for terms also continue to emerge, and over time find their place in dictionaries. Much of the new vocabulary in 21st century English reflects major social changes and events that have taken place in the real world. New editions of dictionaries have included expressions such as social media, congestion charge, designer baby, flash mob, toxic debt, WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) and wardrobe malfunction.

The major English language dictionaries have an elaborate process of keeping track of new words and their usage, and based on the studies and statistics, announce the winning word or words of the year.

This is the time of the year when Words of the Year are declared by the leading dictionaries. This is the outcome of a process that reviews the ‘usage evidence’ of certain words during the year. The selection of the word/words reflect, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains “the ethos, mood or preoccupations” of the preceding year, while also having “potential as a term of lasting cultural significance.”

It was thus no surprise that the words of the year 2020 were those that dominated the lives and pre-occupations of people around the world. These included Pandemic, Quarantine and Lockdown. These words moved beyond the English language and became part of a universal vocabulary.

A natural progression from these led to the word that has been declared as the Word of the Year 2021 by the Oxford English Dictionary. The winning word is Vax.

The word first appeared as a noun in the 1980s to mean either vaccine or vaccination. But it in this year, that the small but pithy word has been used in so many ways: to denote status—‘vaxed’ ‘double vaxed’ or not ‘vaxed’; attitude—‘vaxers’ vs ‘anti vaxers’, and events—vaxathons, and vaxxies (vaccination selfies!)

In keeping with the trend of abbreviations which pack a punch of meaning, the Merrian Webster dictionary has released its list of new words added to the dictionary in 2021 that reflects the use of language in the age of online communication. Among the words in this category are:

TBH: an abbreviation for “to be honest.” 

Amirite: slang used in writing for “am I right” to represent or imitate the use of this phrase as a tag question in informal speech. An example: “English spelling is consistently inconsistent, amirite?”

FTW: an abbreviation for “for the win” used especially to express approval or support. In social media, FTW is often used to acknowledge a clever or funny response to a question or meme.

And of course these words are the staple of the vocabulary of  the Digital Nomads—a term used to describe persons who perform their occupation entirely over the Internet while traveling; especially if such a person has no permanent fixed home address.

The acceptance of abbreviations as official words that find their place in dictionaries is not a new trend in the English language. In the late 1600s it was linguistically fashionable to shorten words. For example people said ‘pos’ or ‘pozz’ for positive, meaning ‘that’s certain’ or ‘incog’ for incognito in casual speech. Words which were reduced in size in this way were called ‘clippings’. Common examples of words where the ends were ‘clipped’ were ad, doc and prof. Among the words where the beginning was clipped were phone and burger; and words where both the beginning and the end were clipped included flu and fridge. What started as informal usage became the acceptable use, and the full forms were almost forgotten over time; think of fax, memo, exam, vet, pub and bus! And not to forget the Bots whose mechanical messages have all but replaced human voices.

Perhaps the ‘clipped’ word that has dominated the past few decades as much as the word ‘vax’ may do in this decade is ‘app’.

The idea of an ‘application’, a computer function designed to meet specific user requirement had been around since the 1960s. But it was in 1985 that a writer in a trade magazine used the abbreviation ‘apps’ to denote ‘for applications’. The short form immediately caught on. It was ‘phonetically appealing, a short, perky syllable, that seemed to suit the exciting quick fire developments in digital communication of the time.’

Following this came the idea of a ‘killer app’—a function which in the dreams of the multimedia industry, would be so appealing that people would not be able to do without it.

I am not sure if ‘app’ was ever voted the word of the year, but this is one word that has surpassed the boundaries of the English language; it continues to be on everyone’s lips, and fingertips! 

–Mamata

Poet with the Piercing Gaze: Subramania Bharathi

The image of Che Guevera, his hair flowing to the shoulders, eyes looking off-camera and a beret on his head, is the international image of revolution, of the oppressed fighting against the powerful, of idealism, of nobility.

No less iconic for Tamilians is the image of Subramania Bharathi, turban on the head with the end wound around his throat, a mustache, and eyes that seem to pierce into the soul. It stands for all of the above, and in addition, for sublime poetry and an idealistic vision for India.

Poet Subramania Bharathi
Mahakavi Bharathi

We mark a century of Mahakavi Subramania Bharathi’s passing this month. He died at the age of 39, tragically trampled to death by the elephant at the Parthasarathy Temple, Triplicane, Chennai. He used to feed the elephant regularly, and they were friends. But on that particular day, something went drastically wrong. His death, as his life, was completely out of the ordinary.

But he is very much alive today, a living tradition. The versatility of Bharathi’s composition is one reason—his songs of national pride, his songs of revolution and social change, of romance, of bhakti—there is something for every occasion.

There is no schoolchild in Tamilnadu who does not know his poems and writings. Not a musician—classical or light-classical or filmi or pop–who does not have a repertoire of Bharathi songs. Not a film-maker who has not used a song or at least a verse from one of his compositions at one time or the other. Not a Tamilian who has not been touched, moved, affected by his poems.

He was something of a child prodigy, being conferred the title of ‘Bharathi’—one who was blessed by the Goddess Saraswathi—at the age of 12, by the Raja of Ettayapuram, for his poetic genius.

He knew 14 languages, but chose to write in Tamil. He was a teacher, a journalist, a poet, a writer, a freedom fighter. He was deeply spiritual, delving deep into Hinduism. It is said that he adopted his trademark turban in admiration of the Sikhs.

The British Empire feared his pen so much that there was an arrest warrant out for him. He spent almost 10 years in exile in Pondicherry (a French territory), so escape imprisonment.

He was an ardent proponent of the emancipation of women, and advocated that they take their place shoulder to shoulder in the freedom struggle and in the development of the nation. In fact, traditional Madras of over a century ago was shocked and agog when he insisted on walking in public, holding hands with his wife!

Poetry in translation seldom works anywhere as well as the original. But even with that, a poet’s words speak louder than anyone else can, of his thoughts, ideas and ideals. So here is an excerpt from one of his most stirring songs:

‘With the name of Bharat Desh on our lips

Let us shake off our fears and poverty

And overcome our sorrows and enemies.

We shall stroll on the snow-clad silver heights of the Himalayas

Our ships shall sail across the high seas

We shall set up schools—scared temples for us.

We shall span the sea to reach Sri Lanka

And raise the level of the Sethu and pave a road on it

We shall water Central India with the bounteous rivers of Bengal.

We shall have such devices that sitting at Kanchi

We will listen to the discourses of scholars in Varanasi.

We shall make tools and weapons

We shall produce paper

We shall open factories and schools

We shall never be lazy or weary

We shall ever be generous

We shall always speak the truth.

Both scriptures and sciences we shall learn

The heavens and oceans we will explore

The mysteries of the moon we shall unravel

The art of street-sweeping too, we shall learn.’

Be inspired, be elevated. Listen to renditions of Bharathi even if you don’t understand the words. And do look out for translations of his work. This translation is from a 1984 publication brought out by NCERT, which also has a well put-together summary of his life. Proving once again that NCERT has done some wonderful work!

https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.231768/2015.231768.Poems-Subramania_djvu.txt)

–Meena

From Colour to Color

Last week I wrote about the Spelling Bee in America and how the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is the official reference for spellings for this prestigious competition. The challenge for participants in the competition is to know the spellings and meanings of the 7000+ words in the dictionary. But how many know the story about the man behind those words—Noah Webster?

This story begins on a farm in West Hartford, Connecticut where Noah Webster was born on October 16 1758, a time when America still belonged to England. His father farmed the land, and from the time Noah was a young boy, he helped out with agricultural chores; but his mind was restless and he was eager to use it in different ways. Having taken in all that the local school had to offer, and encouraged by his teachers, Noah, aged 16, entered Yale, one of the best colleges in the country then. His father took a loan on the farm to support his education. But when he graduated, his father gave Noah eight dollars and told him that henceforth he was on his own.

The 19 year-old graduate, with a farm loan to pay back, needed to start earning immediately; so he started teaching in a school. The conditions were pathetic.  . Children of all ages were crammed into one-room schoolhouses with no desks or basic supplies, untrained teachers, and a few old school books from England which pledged allegiance to King George. This was also a time when the east coast of America was in the throes of the Revolutionary War against the British. Noah strongly felt that his students should be learning about their own country from American textbooks, in a vocabulary that they identified better with.

In October 1781 after King George’s soldiers were defeated, Americans effectively won their independence. And Noah Webster decided that “I will write the second Declaration of Independence. An American spelling book.”

Noah felt that there was no reason why the newly independent people should continue to spell the way they did in England, where words were often spelt very differently from the way they sounded phonetically. Also within America itself the same word was often spelt in different ways (mosquito, moskito, miscitoe, misqutor, muskeetor…). Noah felt that Americans should spell every word in the same way, every time, everywhere. He felt that this would lead to creating a true United States of America.   

For two years, Noah taught school all day and worked at night on this dream textbook. In 1783 he published this under the title A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. He wanted that his “speller” should look different from other books on the shelves and told his printers to put a blue cover on it. And that is what the book became popularly known as–The Blue-Back Speller. The book not only taught spelling, but also listed important American dates, towns and states. Noah Webster had created the first American textbook! For over 100 years, Webster’s book taught children in America to read, spell and pronounce words. It was the most popular American book of its time, selling nearly 100 million copies. But Noah did not mint money from its sales—while originally the book cost 14 cents, he received one penny for each copy sold, the rest went to the printer.

At the time Samuel Johnson’s 1775 Dictionary of the English Language, introduced by the British, was considered the authoritative English language resource by most Americans. But there was a section of the population that wanted its own national dictionary for the newly declared free states of America. In 1806 Noah Webster took the first step towards this when he published A Compendious Dictionary of the American Language which had 40,600 words.

But he was not satisfied; he continued to work on this project with the aim of creating a reference that would overthrow Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. To accomplish this, Webster learned to read and understand more than 20 languages including Arabic, Sanskrit, and Welsh; and he travelled to France and England to research early dictionaries and books on the origins of words and language.

Noah Webster embarked on this project in 1807, and was still working on it 17 years later. At that point he felt he needed to refer still more books and visit more libraries, so in 1824 he set sail for Europe. He completed his magnum opus by penning the last word Zygomatic, in a shaky hand, in 1825. He then meticulously proof read the two thousand pages that he had complied over 20 years.

Noah was 70 years old when the first edition was printed in 1828 under the title An American Dictionary of the English Language.  It included 70,000 words, definitions, and explanations of words’ origins. In doing so, Noah Webster also created a lexicon of “American” words and spellings.

The idea of reforming spelling had taken hold of him as early as 1789 when he had written in an essay: The omission of all superfluous or silent letters; as in bread. Thus bread, head, give, breast, built, meant, realm, friend, would be spelt, bred, hed, giv, brest, bilt, ment, relm, frend. Would this alteration produce any inconvenience, any embarrassment or expense? By no means. On the other hand, it would lessen the trouble of writing, and much more, of learning the language; it would reduce the true pronunciation to a certainty; and while it would assist foreigners and our own children in acquiring the language, it would render the pronunciation uniform, in different parts of the country, and almost prevent the possibility of changes.”

It took several decades for these early ideas to fructify. In his dictionary Noah Webster did simplify the original English spellings, he took out excess letters, like the ‘u’ in colour and honour, the extra ‘l’ in traveler, the ‘e’ on ax and the ‘ough’ in plow. He also reversed the ‘re’ in theater and center and the ‘k’ in musick. He introduced new words from different sources. From Native Americans came words like wampum, moccasin, canoe, moose, toboggan and maize; from Mexico came hoosegow, stampede and cafeteria; from the French came prairie and dime, while cookie and landscape came from the Dutch. Existing words were combined to make new ones, for example, rattlesnake, eggplant and bullfrog. He also added American words that weren’t in English dictionaries like skunk and squash. Only some of the changes that he wanted didn’t make it, like bred for bread, wimmen for women, dawter for daughter and tung for tongue!

Noah Webster accomplished much more than compiling and creating words. Not only did he fight for an American language, he also fought for copyright laws, a strong federal government, universal education, and the abolition of slavery. In the 1780s he pioneered one of the first workmen’s compensation insurance programmes and helped found the antislavery group the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Freedom. In between fighting for these causes, he wrote textbooks, edited magazines and worked to advance copyright laws. He went on a national lecture tour and wrote numerous essays promoting education reform and other cultural concerns. He helped found Amherst college, and helped to establish the Federalist newspaper The American Minerva.

Webster had his idiosyncrasies. He counted houses and churches when he travelled through towns, recording his findings in his diary. While travelling across the American territories in 1785 and 1786, he tallied 20,380 houses in 22 cities.  He kept records of practically everything he did and made copious notes in the margins of anything he read. He assumed that every word he wrote would be interesting to someone in the future. He kept copies of letters he wrote to public figures and even kept their replies. By the time he was in his 70s, he had volumes of notes, letters, essays, and diaries that he stored and saved. These he willed to his son-in-law!

When Noah Webster died in 1843, he was an American hero.

In 1847 (four years after his death), George and Charles Merriam gained the rights to Webster’s work and published their first edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Noah Webster’s was a pioneer in many fields, but his name will always be synonymous with the Webster’s Dictionary.

–Mamata

Buzz Words

It is Bee season in America and the media is abuzz with news, not about the winged insects but about words and their spellings. The Spelling Bee is quite an American institution that has grown, over the years, into a noteworthy national event with high stakes. This is a competition in which contestants are asked to orally spell a broad selection of words, with varying levels of difficulty, and the one who can spell the most words correctly wins. What is unique is that the contestants are school children below the age of 14 years.

While it is in the United States that a game or competition involving words became popular, an early mention of this idea can be found in the early nineteenth century book about education of young boys in England titled The Madras School. One passage says of the pupils, “Some of the boys who are brothers, after they have left school in an evening, have spelling matches at home.”  Following this, different terms were used to describe this type of spelling competition, including Trials in Spelling; Spelling School; Spelling-Fight, Spelling Combat and Spelldown. All these terms clearly indicate the competitive nature of the activity.

The practice of spelling matches spread throughout the United States in the 19th century. One reason for this was attributed to the publication of Noah Webster’s Blue-backed Speller which was first published in 1783. Noah Webster, a young school teacher had embarked on an ambitious project to compile and coin words to make a uniquely American-English vocabulary and spelling. The result of two years of work was a book of spellings for school children, which because of its blue cover, became known as the Blue-backed Speller. For the, then, relatively new United States of America, it was felt that the best way to teach children the spellings in this book was through spelling games. 

By the early 20th century, spelling competitions were becoming popular across the country, being seen mainly as an educational tool. With this educational purpose in mind, the first national Spelling Bee as it began to be called, was held by the National Education Association in 1908. It was unusual for those days in that it had some racially integrated teams that competed, drawing the ire and protest from the conservative all-white teams. The competition was also won by a black eighth grader.

The next major national Spelling Bee was not held until 1925. This time it was sponsored by a local newspaper Louisville Courier-Journal which collaborated with eight other newspapers. After a series of state level competitions nine finalists travelled to Washington DC for the finals. The winner was an 11-year-old boy from Kentucky with the winning word gladiolus. Frank Neuhauser received a prize of $500 in gold pieces and was honoured with a parade on his return home.

Since then it was News Services that sponsored the event.  After 16 years of being one of the sponsors, in 1941, the Scripps Howard News Service acquired complete sponsorship and changed the name to Scripps Howard Nation Spelling Bee.

In America the National Spelling Bee has occurred every year since 1925, with the exception of three years due to World War ll. Over the years it has become more and more competitive, as well as commercial, with higher prize money, and other rewards becoming more substantial. The winner’s prize today is $50,000, many zeroes added from the original prize of $500! The scale has also changed, from the nine students who participated in 1925, to over 500 entrants in the last few years.

Starting at the local town and city level, in elementary or middle school, and progressing to the district, state, and then national level, with numerous rounds and eliminations, it is an event that garners a lot of interest, including media attention, even internationally.

Over the years, the words have increased in difficulty, and the competition has added new rules to further the complexity, and test a deeper understanding of spelling, vocabulary, learning concepts, and correct English usage. One thing has remained constant since its inception with Noah’s Blue-backed Speller— Webster’s New English Dictionary is the official dictionary of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and considered the final authority for the spellings of words. It contains about 473,000 words, any of which, potentially, the participants could be asked to spell.

While the Spelling Bee is popularly considered to be originally and characteristically “as American as apple pie” it is ironic that for the last many years it is children of Indian origin that have won. While Indian-Americans make up about one percent of the total population of the United States, the majority of winners in the past 20 years belong to this group. The first champion was 11-year-old Balu Natarajan who won in 1985. Since 1999, 26 Spelling Bee champions have been Indian-American.

The finals of the 2021 Spelling Bee overturned this trend with 14 year-old Zaila Avant-Garde becoming the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

For an event that is all about words, the most enduring mystery about this is why it is called a Spelling BEE! Most people have for years thought that this must have some association with the industrious and social insect. But scholars feel that the word bee is in fact a derivative from the old English word bene or been, which means “a prayer” or a “favour” referring to “voluntary help given by neighbours towards the accomplishment of a particular task.”

This meaning of Bee describes its traditional reference to a community social gathering at which friends and neighbours joined together in a single activity (sewing, quilting, spinning, logging etc.) usually to help one person or family.

But over the years the event has spawned the kind of cut throat competition that marks all sporting events. Children who are deemed to have potential are “groomed” from the time they start school. They spend years in rigorous “training” under professional coaches. They are under great pressure to “perform” and win at any cost.

The spirit of community, voluntary participation and selfless cooperation that was the root of the Bee in the Spelling Bee seems today to be a far cry from the extremely competitive, and even combative, event that the Spelling Bee has become.

–Mamata

            

                                                                          

ANGRY WORDS

“I was so mad, I thought I would explode!”

“I really blew my top when I heard about that!”

“If this goes on any longer I will blow a fuse!”

“He was so aggravating, I could have bitten his head off!”

Isn’t it interesting how pent up anger is vented through explosive vocabulary. 

Anger is one of the spectrum of universal human emotions. Different cultures have different names and different symbolism attached to the emotions. 

Although conventions regarding the display of emotion differ from culture to culture, our ability to recognize and produce associated facial expressions appears to be universal. In the 1970s, Paul Ekman conducted one of the first scientific studies of facial expression of emotions. He and his colleague Wallace Friesen devised a system to measure people’s facial muscle activity, called the Facial Action Coding System. Based on this system they analysed people’s facial expressions, across a range of cultures, and identified specific facial muscle configurations associated with specific emotions. They concluded that the most common, and commonly recognised, seven emotions are happiness, surprise, sadness, fright, disgust, contempt, and anger. They also concluded that these emotions are “universal” meaning that they operate independently of culture and language

In Indian culture the nava rasas or the nine emotions are said to depict the emotional state of mind. These are Shringara (love/beauty), Hasya (laughter), Karuna(sorrow), Raudra (anger), Veera (heroism/courage), Bhayanaka (terror/fear), Bibhatsa (disgust), Adbutha (surprise/wonder), Shantha (peace or tranquility).Classical dance forms, especially Bharata Natyam, have a wide repertoire of facial expressions that depict not just these emotions, but also the various things that cause that emotion. Raudram or anger is probably the most violent of the nava rasas

From the Nava Rasas series by Suresh Muthukulam

Our faces and bodies undoubtedly have a role not only in communicating but also in creating and maintaining our feelings. The facial expression is an arrangement of the face, which like a word in a language takes its meaning when seen in the larger context, that is, when attached to a particular body, that of the person who is saying and doing particular things in a particular context. Hence we sometimes feel that even though a person was smiling, their body language (closed fists, tense stance etc.) revealed not quite the same emotion.  

Other scientists who have studied how emotions are expressed in language have found that there is much greater variance in the linguistic use of words that express different emotions, and that there is a great deal of nuance in use of these words in different cultures. Some languages have a wide range of words that express not just the basic emotion but the finer sensitivities of that emotion. 

Take Anger. The English language itself has more than one word for anger-related emotions. In addition to ‘anger’, there are ‘ire’, ‘wrath’, ‘fury’, ‘vengeance’, ‘hatred’, ‘frustration’, ‘resentment’, ‘rage’, ‘bile’, ‘irritation’ and many more. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary provided an interconnected web of definitions. ‘Fury’ was, first, ‘madness’, and secondly ‘Rage; passion of anger; tumult of mind approaching to madness’. In its turn ‘rage’ meant ‘violent anger, vehement fury’, while ‘anger’ was defined with a quotation from John Locke, as ‘uneasiness or discomposure of the mind, upon the receipt of any injury, with a present purpose of revenge’. Some authors in the eighteenth century, including the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid, used ‘resentment’ rather than ‘anger’ as their favoured term for a strong and vengeful frame of mind.

Anger seems to have become the predominant emotion of our times. The media leads us to believe that we live in ‘an age of anger’. The anger, in all the definitions, manifests at all levels, from national and international states of war, to civil and social unrest that flares up in violence, to anger at the way systems work (or don’t work), and anger within our closest circles of family and friends. We spend more of ourselves in this emotional state than any other. 

Interestingly, the English language also has a wide repertoire of idioms to help express the degree of anger that we feel. So much more fun that simply saying “I am so angry!”

Here is a sample to choose from:

Hot under the collar.

Up in arms.

Foaming at the mouth.

Steamed up.

Fit to be tied.

Bent out of shape.

Doing a slow burn.

Seeing red.

Ticked off.

Hit the roof.

Go up the wall.

Go off the deep end.

Fly off the handle.

He was angrier than a one armed paper hanger.

Blow one’s top.

Drive me up the wall.

That made my blood boil!

Blow a gasket.

Screaming bloody murder.

Go ballistic.

Would it not be even more interesting to compile anger words and idioms in all our Indian languages? 

“Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” Aristotle 

–Mamata

Rhymes for the Times

In times such as we are passing through, poetry is catharsis; it is a way to share emotions and feelings; it represents the triumph of creativity even in difficult situations; it brings a ray of hope and humour, albeit often black.

And so naturally, there have been thousands of poems on COVID all over print media and social media. In fact, the Washington Post focused its annual kids’ poetry writing competition on Corona this year, with “Poetry of the Pandemic” as the theme of their 2021 poetry contest.

Corona Poetry has taken such proportions that there are several appeals against more of the genre.

So this piece will now stop talking about Corona and move on to trivia about other well-known nursery rhymes.

A widely-held belief—though some scholars disagree—is that ‘Ring-A-Ring of Roses’ has its origins in another pandemic, the Great Plague. The ‘roses’ are the red rashes which are a symptom of the disease; the ‘posies’ are the herbs that were carried as a protection against the infection; and the ‘Atishoo, atishoo’ (which at least in my childhood version became ‘husha-busha’!) represents the final sneezing before falling down dead.

But moving on to some poems with non-pandemic associations:

The rhyme ‘There was a little girl, who had a little curl’ is believed to have been written by the famous American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for his daughter Edith, on a day she was throwing tantrums about having her hair curled. Well, I suppose that is the difference between poets and others—most parents’ reaction to a tantrum is a raised pitch rather than a rhyming verse!

‘Humpty Dumpty’ is very ancient and there are variants all over Europe. This is obviously a riddle whose answer is ‘egg’, but seems to have lost that connotation, especially as most illustrations of the poem clearly show an egg, not leaving any suspense.

‘Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy’ is played with counters, and is supposed to indicate what the child will become when it grows up.

The historical event of the Norse King Olaf destroying the London Bridge in the 11th century probably gave rise to the popular ditty ‘London Bridge is falling down’.

Children across the world wistfully recite ‘Rain, rain go away’ when downpourings stop their games. The poem’s origins go back to ancient Greece, and it is supposed to be a charm to keep rain away.

‘Little Miss Muffet’ was probably written  Dr. Thomas Muffet, an entomologist of the 16th century, who was fascinated by spiders for his daughter Patience. ‘Incy winsy spider’ or ‘Itsy bitsy spider’ the other popular spider-verse was first published around 1910, thought it may be older. It is a ‘finger song’ and children mimic the actions of a spider climbing up and down.

A popular poem about an insect is ‘Ladybird, ladybird fly away home’. It is to be recited when a ladybird lands on your hand or arm, as harming these creatures is supposed to bring bad luck.

 ‘This little pig went to market’ is a toe game played with toddlers while counting off their toes.

While the origins of many nursery rhymes is speculative, the author of ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’ is known definitively to be Jane Taylor, who published this in 1806. She and her sister Ann were popular nursery-rhyme writers.

And to end, a story about a poem which is not very popular today.

Three wise of Gotham

Went to sea in a bowl.

If the bowl had been stronger

My story would have been longer.

It does not rhyme particularly well, and sounds pretty abrupt. But the origin-story is very interesting. Apparently, in England during the reign of King John (about 800 years back), when the King passed through any road, that road became a public road. Now the King on one of his journeys planned to pass through the village of Gotham. The citizens of that village did not want their village road to become a thoroughfare. So they came up with a strategy. They all decided to start acting completely silly when the King’s advance party came around. So some went in pursuit of a cuckoo, and spread the word that they were doing it to capture it and hence have perpetual summer. Others tried to drown an eel in a pond. The King’s guards were convinced that the villagers were all mad, and advised the King to change his route, which he did. So the ‘mad men’ were actually wise, and saved their village.

If only we could strategize, cooperate and subvert the more unreasonable of the plans of our rulers like this!

–Meena

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