A day or two ago I mentioned on a friend’s site that a particular word she used is so commonly misunderstood by Indians as to change the entire import of her statement. And that reminded me, again, of how Indians have mangled the English language and produced something that is full of pitfalls for the unwary speaker of real English.
Note: For the purpose of this article, Indian English is used to mean Indians attempting to communicate in English without importing words from Indian languages, the latter being a phenomenon called Hinglish (Hindi/English), Benglish (Bengali/English), Tamlish (Tamil/English) and the like, depending on the language. Also, I’m not including conscious attempts at satire or mistakes arising from literal translations from Indian languages to English. I’m only including errors made while attempting to speak what is fondly imagined to be correct English.
There are thousands of things that Indians misuse in English, many region-specific; but for now I’ll just talk about eleven, which are used by Indians everywhere. There are many others, of course.
So, here we go for eleven special meanings in Indian English that you don’t know of:
- Used to.
Example: “I used to watch Hindi movies,” he said.
What you think he means: that he formerly watched Hindi movies, but stopped.
What he really means: He watches Hindi movies.
Explanation: “Used to”, especially where English speakers from North East India are concerned, translates into “do”.
Example: “That girl is characterless,” she said angrily.
What you think she means: “That girl has no interest in anything; she’s dull as ditchwater.”
What she really means: “That girl is a slut.”
Explanation: In Indian English, the only translation of the word “characterless” is “of bad character”. Use the word correctly and you may end up being accused of slander.
- Is having.
Example: “He is having a mango.”
What you think that means: “He is eating the mango.”
What it actually means: “He has a mango.”
Explanation: Though this won’t get you beaten up, “is having” is a standard synonym for “have.” Someone once asked me if I was having a copy of a textbook. I quite correctly told him no. It was on my desk, but I wasn’t eating it, after all.
Example: “Look out for that woman, she’s a psychic.”
What you think that means: “Keep an eye on that woman, because she’s a spiritualist and can tell your deepest secrets.”
What it really means: “That woman is a raving psychotic, so watch out!”
Explanation: For some unknown reason, Indians can’t get it into their heads that there’s a separate and distinct word called psychic which has nothing in common with psychotic. Again, watch your step.
- Even I (he/she/we).
Example: “Even I am going to the movie.”
What you think it means: “This movie is so great that even I, who normally doesn’t watch movies, will be going this time.”
What it really means: “I, too, am going to watch the movie.”
Explanation: This Indian Englishism never fails to irritate me. Even, for some reason, is taken to mean also. There is no reason for this I can think of.
- I only (or he/she/we)
Example: “I only told her to burn the papers.”
What you think it means: “I only told her to burn the papers and nothing more; it’s on her own initiative that she set fire to the house as well.”
What it really means: “I told her to burn the papers.”
Explanation: “I was the one who” – again for no reason I can comprehend – is routinely translated into “I only.”
- Good name.
Example: “What is your good name?”
What you think it means: “What is your good, as opposed to your bad, name, if you can even begin to understand this?”
What it really means: “What is your name?”
Explanation: A misguided attempt to be polite, by informing you that your name isn’t just a common name, it’s a good and exalted name.
- Yes I didn’t.
Example: “Didn’t you eat the cake?” “Yes.”
What you think it means: “Yes, I did.”
What it really means: “No, I didn’t.”
Explanation: This particular one is a major trigger point for me, because I keep coming across people at work who confuse me by their one word answers. In order to avoid this particular pitfall, ask a follow up question: “Did you eat the cake, or didn’t you?”
- Oh Really?
Example: “Oh really? You couldn’t turn the instrument back on?”
What you think it means: “You expect me to be stupid enough to think you couldn’t turn it back on? What sort of idiot do you think I am?”
What it really means: “That’s very interesting, sir. We need to look into this.”
Explanation: Another misguided attempt to be polite. You’ll probably come across this particular error if you deal with an Indian call centre.
- Shot at.
Example: “The terrorists shot at the minister and injured him.”
What you think it means: “The terrorists shot at the minister, missed, and injured him by some other means, like throwing their guns at him.”
What it really means: “The terrorists shot and injured the minister.”
Explanation: For some reason, this has become a standard in Indian media these days. If someone is shot and only injured, he or she has, invariably, been shot at. If he dies weeks later in hospital (like the politician Pramod Mahajan, who was murdered by his brother), suddenly he’s shot. I suppose the bullet only gets around to hitting him at the instant of death.
- Cousin Brother/Sister.
Example: “He’s my brother.”
What you think it means: “He is my brother.”
What it really means: “He is my brother.” Or, “He is my cousin.”
Explanation: In traditional large Indian joint families, where several siblings and their own broods exist under the same roof, the term “brother” or “sister” isn’t necessarily confined to one’s siblings; cousins come under its purview as well. As for the term cousin, it’s too general and gender-nonspecific for Indians. Most Indian languages don’t possess separate words for “he” and “she”, so one has to specify whether a particular person is a male or a female since the gender case won’t tell the listener that. Accordingly, combining the two, a “cousin” becomes a “cousin brother” or a “cousin sister.”
A couple of others, more region-specific:
Fackaid and Backside: These two are very commonly used among the nouveau riche of North and West India, who want to give fancy designations to the hideous monstrosities they have constructed with their ill-gotten money. Fackaid is the Punjabi or Gujarati attempt to pronounce façade – a word they’ve only seen written down, never pronounced. As for backside, it refers in this case to the back of the house, not to your posterior.
Hand-gloves. Bunglees (my preferred term for Bengalis, for those who don’t know) use this to refer to gloves. Why, I have no idea, except that the Bunglee for gloves translates into “hand-socks”. But they don’t call socks “foot socks,” so I might be wrong there.
Indians who read this are welcome to contribute anything else they wish.