Thursday, September 3, 2009

Know Your English, Upendran!

The English language column called Know Your English in the Hindu must be enjoying popularity as it has been appearing for many years now. I don't know what sort of people find it interesting. I have always thought it sort of silly. The column has survived various changes the Hindu underwent. So, the owners of the newspaper must be thinking that it is worthwhile to have it.

A few months back I was peeved by the lack of response from the Readers' Editor of the Hindu after I pointed out several errors in a single instalment of this column. It seemed strange as they were usually courteous enough to reply. I alerted the columnist himself but one can hardly expect a reply from somebody who can't put together a couple of sentences in decent English cogently. Irked by this lack of response I raked through many episodes archived online to see what this columnist has actually been up to.

As I scanned through the online archive of many weeks the impression I had was that this supposed language expert who has been penning an English language column for many years is not very good at his basics and the column has a pervasive inanity as I will show through examples shortly. After finding many examples for his lack of facility with language I put together a write-up for a blog post which remained unfinished for some time. Later I cooled off on the matter. That was a few months back. Today, I happened to look at his column again and found his charlatanism insufferable. At once I emailed the readers' editor about a few howlers in this week's instalment, which I will cite at the end of this write-up. Once again I felt that his dumb column should be exposed on record and accordingly decided to publish the earlier write-up with some additions.

I will start with an example typical of his platitudinous inanity:
Americans refer to what we in India call `full stop' as `period'. When you say, `I don't want to meet her, period', it means it is the end of the sentence. You have completed saying what you wanted to say, and do not wish to discuss the matter any further.
Seen here

It means it is the end of the sentence! Oh really? There is no beating of that idea in inanity. He is never tired of trite expressions. One will be surprised to see a Google search on the Hindu website turning up dozens of instances of his funny way of using his pet interjection, “Sounds good”, week after week.

Most of the time he answers silly questions supposedly put by some readers who can’t get hold of a dictionary. The questions asked are rarely about grammar or any interesting aspect of the language. There is practically nothing about Indian English which should have been cardinal to the column as it is appearing in an Indian national daily. People ask for meaning or pronunciation of a few expressions each week and the columnist refers to some dictionary or website and tries to answer them. Funny people! And as none of the definitions or examples are his own there is very little chance that he makes big mistakes. Still some of his paraphrases and rehashes really show him up for what he is. You don’t even need a hack writer to do the job this columnist does. Any copy editor might do it and may do it better than Upendran. Just do some web searches or refer to some dictionaries and copy some parts and reword some other parts. Substitute Indian names for foreign names. Done! Still, our columnist often makes extremely poor job of this thing out of utter lack of judgment, inability to comprehend the sources etc.

What is the meaning of ‘handsome is as handsome does’?
According to some scholars, the expression was first recorded by the English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer. In the movie ‘Forrest Gump’, the main character comes up with his own version of the proverb: ‘stupid is as stupid does.’

More than a failure to understand this is actually a case of misinterpretation of sources. Apparently the columnist made use of an online source almost to the point of plagiarism. However, in the process he failed to read carefully. The person who made this posting on that discussion forum says thus:
HANDSOME (PRETTY) IS AS HANDSOME (PRETTY) DOES - Good deeds are more important than good looks. The proverb was first recorded by Chaucer in 'The Wife of Bath's Tale' (c. 1387)
Note that he is not speaking of a definite expression but an idea (which he calls the proverb). The Wife of Bath's Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales actually has it thus:
That he is gentil that dooth gentil dedis
The text is available online here
A far cry from handsome is as handsome does. What a boo-boo our language columnist is capable of!
What is the meaning and origin of `baker's dozen'?
Number 13 is believed to be an unlucky number by a lot of people. Many hotels, in fact, do not have a room which is numbered 13. In some high rise buildings, you may find the 13th floor missing! When you say that you want a baker's dozen of something, it means you want 13 pieces of it. Baker's dozen means 13.
This is banality par excellence. It is doubly ludicrous as it has nothing to do with the phrase.
In 1266, a law was passed in Parliament which specified exactly how much each loaf of bread must weigh.
Very sharp indeed with the history and dating. But unluckily for our columnist there was no parliament at the time and it is just the platitudinous imagination of the columnist which makes it a parliamentary act. The origin of the phrase has nothing to do with the superstition, still a whole paragraph is spent on it and a reader would carry the impression that baker’s dozen having 13 has something to do with this superstition.
What is the difference between `condole' and `condolence'?
Although the columnist pretends to offer an authoritative answer he just misses the most basic point that the verb is rare and the noun condolences in plural is a common expression. Instead of drawing this basic distinction he ends up making a puerile remark.
Unlike the word `condolence', the word `condole' is not found in all dictionaries.
What is the origin of `quiz'?
According to one theory, this word was coined and popularised overnight. The story goes that a theatre manager in Dublin by the name of James Daly took a bet with his friend that he could coin a new word and have everyone in the city using it or talking about it within twenty-four hours. Daly hired street children, gave them a stick of chalk each, and told them to write the word `quiz' (which didn't exist then) on any surface they could find. The children spent the night writing the word on walls and on roads. When the people of Dublin woke up the next morning, they found the word written everywhere. People began to talk about it and they all wanted to know what it meant. Of course, not everyone believes this to be the true origin of the word.
The problem with this “theory” is that it is pure falsity and dishing it out without proper background information is unpardonably silly. The Wikipedia article on quiz after giving relevant information regarding the etymology of the expression mentions the story behind Upendran’s “theory”.
“There is a well-known myth about the word "quiz"…”

See Quiz#Etymology

Upendran's lack of imagination and comprehension becomes most apparent when he talks about idioms. Here's an example.
What is the meaning of ‘add insult to injury’?
There are times when things don’t go according to the way we had planned. We feel bad about it, and in order to snap out of the terrible mood we are in, we pay a visit to our friends hoping that they will cheer us up. Sometimes, instead of helping us overcome our depression, they succeed in getting us even more upset. The idiom ‘add insult to injury’ means to make a situation that is already bad, worse.

First of all, he was driving on the wrong side of the road, and then to add insult to injury, he proceeded to abuse me for driving slowly!

Upendran's explanation of the idiom itself is clumsy. Upsetting somebody who is already suffering from low spirits doesn't necessarily require insult. Above all, the example he gives is not only way out of the scope of the idiom but also lacking commonsense. In what situation are 'I' and 'he' connected is hardly evident. 'He' could be a friend who has been at the wheel until 'I' took over. 'He' could be another driver with whom 'I' am having an altercation over careless driving. It could be something else altogether. In any case, the injury 'I' suffered where 'he' could lay on insult is not evident to the eyes. An example should clarify the idea beyond what is explained. Despite the sickening verbosity, this column pathetically fails to clarify simple, rudimentary things.

These examples suffice to show that the column shows signs of incompetence and sometimes even lack of commonsense. It is very much like the outpouring of one of those ambitious hacks who exult in verbosity and can hardly put together a couple of sentences coherently. The Hindu has a good readership among these leisurely pundits as is evident from the large number of thoughtless, vapid letters to the editor they publish. One fourth or more of Upendra's column is dedicated to laboriously explaining the pronunciation of words, sometimes supposedly asked, sometimes unasked. Apparently, those who ask can't even consult a dictionary or reference or do a web search. The question he attempts to answers can easily find answers by a Google search. It is ridiculous that the bosses at the Hindu do not understand how immensely anachronistic this column is. Here are some additional examples seen in this week's episode.
What is the meaning of ‘He works like a Trojan’?
The expression is considered rather old fashioned, and is seldom heard nowadays. The Trojans were people who lived in the beautiful city of Troy. They were believed to be very courageous, and when the Greeks invaded their city, they defended it in a determined manner. The expression ‘to work like a Trojan’ means, ‘to work hard’.

Upendran has applied his bit of originality by calling Troy a beautiful city. There is hardly a logical connection between determined resistance and hard work but our columnist is impervious to such earthy considerations. The funny thing is the use of the verb invade. The city was not invaded but besieged. That the city couldn't be invaded was the reason for the famous ruse of the Trojan Horse.
The idiom [‘even Homer sometimes nods'] is actually a translation of a line from the Roman poet Horace, who in his ‘De Ars Poetica’, wrote: “I think it is a shame when the worthy Homer nods: but in so long a work it is allowable if drowsiness comes on.”
Horace's Ars Poetica is a famous work. However with a gratuitous preposition 'De' it looks very strange and probably absurd as well.
Throwing up on the stage was the kiss of death for Rahul’s acting caree
I feel like throwing up reading the above example Upendran so facilely provides. Apparently he got the idea from Wiktionary which says:
Kiss of death
(informal) Something that may seem good and favourable but that actually brings ruin to hopes, plans, etc.
The role in the soap opera was the kiss of death for Ann's career as a theatrical actress.
He rehashed adding his usual bit of originality (a little morbid in this case) but forgot that throwing up on the stage cannot seem good and favourable.
In Old English, both ‘thick’ and ‘fast’ meant ‘close together’.
You don't have to go to Old English to have that meaning for thick and fast. Those words still have that meaning very much. Upendran's venturing into Old English is plainly due to his absolute ignorance of the etymology of these two words. For once you start with the etymology of them there is no stopping with Old English as they have etymology going much farther back in the evolution of language.
thick: Old English þicce = Old Frisian thikke, Old Saxon þikki, Old High German dicki, dichi (Dutch dik, German dick), Old Norse þykkr, from Germanic, of unkn. origin.
fast: Old English fæst = Old Frisian fest, Old Saxon fast (Dutch vast), Old High German festi (German fest), Old Norse fastr, from Germanic.


  1. LOL, and I thought I was the only one annoyed by this self proclaimed expert's so called expertise.

  2. omg! a Kozhikodan blogger? and that initialism from the homemaker mother!

  3. salivating at the prospect of homemaker mother?

  4. Good work, agreed. But here's a bit of advice: Take better care of your own use of the language - especially when you attempt criticism.

    The question he attempts to answers can easily find answers by a Google search.’ Did 'Calicocentric' step into the boots of Upendran here?

  5. Hmm
    I can't remember why I wrote that silly sentence. "Can be easily answered" is straight.
    Despite the idiosyncrasy the sentence does make sense, grammatically too.
    You don't normally step into somebody else's boots, but shoes.

  6. It seems that it was a case of 'mix-up'. You were trying to say something like 'The question he attempts to answer can be easily answered by a Google search' or 'They (those who ask such questions) can easily find answers by...', but ended up mixing the two sentences. A common mistake sometimes made even by those who are proficient in the language.

    And, well, I knew the usage 'step into someone else's shoes', but used the word 'boot' intenting to add a 'comic effect' mimicing Upendran's style of modifying phrases, idioms etc. (I should have put the word as 'boots' instead of boots.)

  7. 'Despite the idiosyncrasy the sentence does make sense, grammatically too.'

    I couldn't understand what you meant by this sentence. I felt that the original sentence (The question he attempts to answers...) does NOT make sense.

  8. one can see why this blog is called a "dusty room"