Thursday, July 23, 2015

Dial M For Music

Of all the 26 letters of the English alphabet, only one is richly associated with music. That’s M. We chanced upon this discovery when the news of MS Viswanathan’s earthly demise trickled in, last week.

The 13th letter throws up many links to musicians. Leading the Grand M Orchestra is Mozart. Mahler and Mendelssohn can ably assist the maestro with his compositions. MS Subbulakshmi, Maharajapuram Santhanam and Madural Mani Iyer are at hand to lend their blessed voices for Carnatic melodies. Mallikarjun Mansoor and Shubha Mudgal can form a great Hindustani jugalbandi. Michael Jackson, Muddy Waters, Madonna, and McCartney will pitch in with anything remotely pop or blues. Meanwhile Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh, Talat Mehmood, Mehdi Hassan, Lata Mangeshkar, Mika Singh, Shankar Mahadevan and Manna Dey are on stand-by to provide back-up vocals for light melodies. And bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Motley Crue, and Motorhead can amp it up if the need arises.

Before you doubters can point out that such a line-up can be put together for any letter, let me stack up more evidence to back my case.

Have you ever wondered as to why so many music terms begin with M? The rhythm of the composition is ‘Meter’. In the Tamil film industry, the lyric is referred to as the ‘Matter’. The tune is universally recognised as the ‘Melody’. Then, the two primary types of scale in tonal music are ‘Major’ and ‘Minor’. Changeover from one key to the other is called ‘Modulation’. Pieces of symphonies are defined as ‘Movements’. ‘Medley’ is a creation made by overlapping a series of pieces. Meanwhile the recurring element in compositions is the ‘Motif’.

One can feel the power of M even in Carnatic music. The parent ragas are labelled as ‘Melakarta ragas’. There are 72 Melakarta ragas in all. From these are derived thousands of other ‘children’ ragas. The 15th Melakarta raga ‘Mayamalawagowla’ is invariably the first raga taught in all Carnatic classes. And ‘Mangalam’ happens to be last song belted out in all concerts. Another interesting concept is ‘Mudra’. It’s the composer’s moniker embedded in a song. To illustrate the point, Carnatic great Muthuswamy Dikshithar is said to have used the mudra ‘Guruguha’.

Lots of music instruments have the initial M. To name a few: Mandolin, Mridangam, Morsing, Mouth Organ, Murali, Marimba, Mohana Veena and the MIDI Keyboard. Curiously the most popular music channel is MTV and the most famous file type for storing music is MP3. Now, doesn’t that ring a bell?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Emperor's Tale

History text books rarely chronicle history. They are as selectively factual as government press releases. To develop an objective view of the past, one has to first unlearn all the ‘facts’ that were handed out at school.

The Mughals, for example, were not Islamic conquerors. ‘Mughals’ is the Persian way of saying ‘Mongols’ which is an allusion to how the dynasty perceived itself as descendants of Tamerlane, the warlord from Central Asia.

Babar, the founder of the Mughal Empire, was in fact an Uzbeki who fancied Kabul a lot more than Delhi. He made his way to Punjab on an invitation from Daulat Khan Lodi and on realising the weakness of the Ibrahim Lodi Empire, demolished them in less than half a day in the much touted First Battle of Panipat. BTW, Babar was born as Zahiruddin Mohammad and his name literally means ‘Tiger’.

Babar’s son Humayun (meaning: ‘the fortunate one’) was not a patch on his dad when it came to military tactics. Driven out of India by Shershah Suri, he wormed his way back after Shershah’s demise and is best remembered as the bloke who died in a library accident after tripping over his skirt.

Akbar (‘The Great’), born as Abu’l Fath Jalaluddin Muhammad, was rightly renowned for his tolerance and empire building. But he had a more colourful streak. Apart from the syncretic way of living he put together, he was also a prolific inventor. Among his creations included a method to fire seventeen guns simultaneously and a machine to clean sixteen barrels at once!

Jehangir (‘World Conqueror’) was a total dopey and a sucker for booze in addition to being a pious Muslim. He stole Nur Jehan from one of his subordinates, got his first son blinded for rebelling against him and was gullible enough to let the Brits into our country.

Shahjahan (‘King of the world’), the eternal romantic who built the Taj Mahal was a ruthless brother killer famous for staging a coup to oust his dad. But his karma had a funny way of boomeranging on him when his much loved son Dara Shukoh was beheaded by his other son Aurangzeb (‘honour to the throne’).

Aurangzeb, the much reviled humourless bigot, is often portrayed as a hater of music. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was an accomplished player of the rudra veena and he never forbade artists from performing for his wives and daughters. One more interesting truth that is rarely publicised is the birthplace of Aurangzeb. Like our Prime Minister, he was born in Gujarat. Wonder what the saffronwalas have to say about this.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

All Greek To Me

For a country with a population as much as Bangalore, Greece has indeed piled up a mountain of debt. As per experts, the Greeks owe their creditors nearly 353 billion dollars. To put things in perspective, that’s twice the size of the IT industry in India!

While the Greek tragedy unravels yet again, it might be a good idea to explore what the business world owes the nation that gave us democracy, philosophy, Olympics and more.

Nike, the 25 billion dollar conglomerate, began its journey as Blue Ribbon Sports. A chance decision to rename the company after the Greek Goddess of Victory, made all the difference to its fortunes.

ASUS, the world’s largest PC vendor after Lenovo and HP, is a 13 billion dollar corporation. As per the company’s own admission ASUS is derived from Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology. Only the last four letters were picked from Pegasus as it would help in directory listings.

Olympus, the 7 billion dollar Japanese camera giant, is named after Mount Olympus, the home of the Greek gods. Even Canon Eos, the bestselling autofocus SLR has a mythical connect: Eos happens to be the Greek goddess of dawn.

Two big companies in India – Apollo Tyres (Turnover: $2 billion) and Apollo Hospitals ($750 million), derive their names from the very handsome and strong, god of light, who is also known to be the chief patron of medicine.

Even demigods have been milked to create business propositions. Atlas (the titan who supports the heavens on his shoulders) and Hercules (the son of Zeus synonymous with superhuman strength) are two of our leading cycle brands clocking revenues in hundreds of crores.

Trojan, America’s No.1 condom, is an ode to the virility of Priam, the last king of Troy. Priam is said to have fathered 50 sons and innumerable daughters!

Another colourful character from the past who’s been converted into a money spinner is Milo. The ancient wrestler who was the grand slam champion of the sport in his times was immortalised by Nestle as a chocolate malt beverage.

One can go on recounting. From Eidos (meaning: ‘species’) to Omega (the last letter), there are so many brands that have leeched off the Greek cornucopia. If only the good people of Athens had found some way to demand royalty, they wouldn’t be in such a soup. Or should we say Fasolada?

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Gender Benders

Bruce Jenner was the ultimate male icon. At least during the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He bested the Soviets in Decathlon and was celebrated as an American Hero and even billed as ‘the world’s greatest athlete’. Cut to 1 June 2015. Jenner smashed another record. This time as a woman. She became the fastest to clock one million followers on twitter (FYI: 4 hours and 3 minutes)!

In less than 40 years, Bruce Jenner morphed into Caitlyn Jenner by becoming a transgender via the hormone replacement therapy. Along the way, he dropped enough hints that ‘he’ was actually a ‘she’.

Lana Wachoswki, the director of Matrix trilogy, didn’t have it as easy. After contemplating suicide and being lampooned as a freak, Larry decided to come out of the closet and proclaim himself as Lana.

Like Lana, Georgina Beyer had her moments of self-doubt. But a prescient decision to change her name from George Bertrand, made all the difference to her destiny. She became the world’s first transsexual mayor and then went on to be the world’s first transsexual parliamentarian.

Ramesh Venkatesan would have been yet another web designer had he overlooked his urge to start dressing as a woman. The courage to openly embrace his feminity led him to assume the identity of Rose Venkatesan. Today Rose is a celebrity TV anchor with a thriving movie career.

The journey from Ramesh to Rose is not a particularly simple ride. One has to face a lot of red tape to assume the new identity. The first step is to get a gender change affidavit backed by a psychological assessment. Next you’ll have to place two newspaper ads citing your name change. Then you’ll have to repeat this procedure in a government gazette. Using these notifications, you can eventually apply for change of gender and name in your passport and other things official.

There’s been a lot of speculation about how transgenders choose their new name. Some like a legacy name (Alexander to Alexandra). Some prefer a polar opposite (Raja to Rani). Some opt for dedications (Bruce Jenner considered Brigitte as a nod to Brigitte Bardot). Some others revel in the whimsical (Mr. Hillard to Mrs. Doubtfire). Whatever you choose, you’ve got to realise that it’s no longer odd to be queer.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Hello, my name is Forgetful

Crotchety old uncles and aunts in Tamil households have a strange obsession. They pop up at all the wrong functions and ask all kinds of right questions to the wrong persons. One legendary query that has given many young generations the jitters is, “Yenna yaarunu theriyuda?” Translated that means “Dude, I know you don’t give a fig about me. But let me embarrass the daylights out of you by asking you to name me - although theoretically speaking, you don’t stand a chance as the last time you saw me, you were in your nappies!”

I don’t know about you, but every time someone asks me their name, I go blank. No amount of panic hitting of the ‘recall memory’ button seems to help. The farthest I’ve gotten so far is in remembering the first letter. I used to think that I’ve got Alzheimer’s and the hypochondriac in me was secretly relishing the prospect of chewing some bitter new tablets. But apparently, forgetting names is a not that rare a disease. It’s as commonplace as the common cold. And the technical term for it is ‘Nominal Aphasia’.

Aphasia is ‘speechlessness’ and Nominal Aphasia is an apt way of describing how tongue tied you feel while recollecting a name. It’s a very solvable problem if we take the effort to understand how the brain works.

Essentially, the brain stores three types of memories: instant, short term and long term. Names are short term memories and they are filed in the long term folder only if they are associated with some other memory. Let me explain.

Suppose you meet someone named Rahul, chances are you’re likely to forget it as it’s not ‘memorable’ enough. Because three other namesakes (Rahul Gandhi, Rahul Dravid and Rahul Bose) have already occupied some precious real estate in the inner labyrinths of the long term memory folder. To make space for another Rahul, you need a prefix or suffix that generates a visual in your head.

In the olden days, the prefix used to be ‘thin’, ‘fat’, ‘short’, ‘tall’, ‘dark’, ‘fair’ or any other appropriately inappropriate trait. It really worked as it’s impossible to forget someone called ‘Fat Rahul’ or ‘Rude Rahul’.

All we need to do is to learn from our forefathers and apply the right name marker. That way, the next time some pesky relative poses that infamous question, you can jog your memory instantly and run away with the honours.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Origin of Languages

A 1965 movie ‘Panchavarna Kili’ is still etched in the minds of millions of Doordarshan viewers. Who can forget the epic sequence of KR Vijaya’s quivering lips over-emoting the ‘Tamizhukkum amudhendru per' number penned by poet Bharathidasan. Along with a liberal glimpse of the actress’s rubbery jaw and her pearly-pearlies, the song also gave us a hint of the meaning of ‘Tamil’.

Tamil, as you must have guessed by now, simply means ‘that which is sweet’. Derived from Tam (self) and -izh (the root word for honey), the 19th most spoken tongue predates the existence of all mother tongues in India, except say Sanskrit which incidentally, was never called ‘Sanskrit’ by Panini the grammarian. He referred to the Vedic language as ‘Chandasa’. Sanskrit (meaning: refined) was perhaps a later day coinage built upon a distillation of the best of Prakrit, the original vernacular of our nation.

Malayalam took root as a distinct entity from Tamil when the Pandyan Dynasty lost its control over large tracts of Kerala. Malai (‘hilly’ in Tamil) and Aalum (‘ruled by’ in Tamil) somehow got fused together and the region gave rise to Malayalam.

Telugu is another story. The dominant school of thought seems to believe that Telugu came from Trilinga Desa, the terrain with three Shiva temples – Srisailam, Drakasharamam and Kaleshwaram. I somehow subscribe to Ganti Jogi Somyaji’s hypothesis that Telugu is a derivation from Ten-ungu. ‘Ten’ in Proto-Dravidian means ‘South’. And therefore, Tenungu means ‘Southerners’. The explanation feels as logical as Hindi being that which is spoken by the people of Hind.

Kannada’s history too owes a lot to its geography. Etymologically built from Karu-nadu (land of the black cotton soil), Kannada is an exotic cocktail brewed over centuries from Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit and Tamil.

Kannada’s amiable cousin Tulu owes its ancestry to the Dravidian root word Tuli (drop of water) which is probably an attribution to its coastal provenance. The Kon in Konkani makes a similar allusion to the ‘mountain range’.

Urdu, on the other hand, is from the Turkic word ‘ordu’ and it decodes to the language of the army camp. Probably the reference is to Mahmud Ghazni and his hordes who camped around the Delhi Sultanate and developed its lexicon.

There are at least 770 more dialects to cover. If you lend me your ears, will be glad to leave you speechless over a cuppa.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Being Poles Apart

Every time someone tells you they know nothing about Poland, point them to the word ‘Schmuck’. The pejorative for a douchebag cum moron is derived from Yiddish word for the male genital organ which in turn comes from the Old Polish word ‘smok’ (meaning: grass snake).

To be fair to the Poles, there’s a lot more to them than Schmucks and the stale old Polish Joke Books. The Wachowskis are a great advertisement for the country. The creators of The Matrix trilogy, are of Polish descent. Their forefathers were from the Wachow village in south-western Poland.

If that didn’t impress you much, well, let me tell you that the country has produced 16 Nobel Prize Winners – twice as many as India. Among the winners is Marie Curie, the only person to win two Nobels in two different sciences (Physics and Chemistry)! Marie Curie was born Maria Salomea Skowdowska. She was so proud of her nation that she named Element 84 as Polonium as her tribute

That wonderful writer Charles Bukowski, he too, has some Polish genes. His bookish sounding surname literally means ‘one who comes from the buk tree area’. For the botanically flummoxed, ‘buk’ is the beech tree.

If you’re the religious types, you might be glad to know that Pope John Paul II was born as Karol Jozef Wojtyla and his Polish surname indicates he’s a descendant of an officer running a rural district.

Even music maestro Fredric Chopin and the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (born Mikolaj Kopernik) were of Polish origin. The adorable thing about Poland is they are one of the few places in the world to celebrate name days. How it works is, catholics named after a saint, would celebrate that saint’s feast day as Name Day. For instance, May 30 is Joan of Arc’s day. So anyone named Joana would celebrate it as their day!

The Polish language is widely considered to be the hardest to master. With seven genders (three masculine, three feminine and one neuter) and seven noun cases, it is said that even a localite gets fluent only after 16 years of effort.

To give a glimpse of the difficulty level, try and pronounce Grzegorz Brzeczyszczykiewicz. If you were nowhere near Gye-ghosh B-zhench-sh-chy-kee-veech, you must hand it to the Poles for keeping their tongues from being tied, tangled and twisted.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Rotten Apple Syndrome

What comes to your mind when you think of Veerappan? That sandalwood smuggler with the handlebar mousch, right? And what visuals fill your head when you imagine ‘Lewinsky’? Most hot-blooded men are likely to see a ‘buxom intern’ and ‘Bill Clinton’s cigar’. Let’s take one more question. If you travelled with a bloke named ‘Godse’, which historic incident is likely to cloud your worldview? The assassination of a much loved old man, no?

Don’t you get what I am alluding to? It takes just one rotten apple to spoil the reputation of a name forever. Ask actress Mugdha Godse or parliamentarian Hemant Tukaram Godse about the kind of grief they get from strangers on account of their surname. Perhaps that’s why they fought so hard to remove ‘Godse’ from the list of unparliamentary words in the Lok Sabha. It took the community nearly seven decades to undo the damage caused by one Nathuram.

I am reminded of the Bollywood number 'Munni badnam hui darling tere liye’ every time I come across such instances. To quote a telling example: Nithyananda is a revered 15th century Vaishnava saint in the Gaudiya faith, often seen as an incarnation of Lord Balarama. But mention ‘Swami Nithyananda’ to Chennaiites, and all you will elicit is sniggers and snide references to a naughty sex tape. In one stroke, the Video Clipananda ruined the reputation of a genuine godman and the aura of respectability of thousands of Nithyanandams across the world.

Put yourself in the shoes of your neighbourhood Dr. Prakash (namesake of a local smut king) to know what stigma is. It’s never too easy being a Ravana in Ramaland or a Judas in Jesuspuram. You always carry the baggage that comes with the name. There’s no escaping that.

Fortunately, companies have a choice. They can drop their ill-reputed moniker at will and choose something with more positive associations. When ISIS, the radical Islamic group, reared its ugly head, the Belgian Chocolate maker ‘Isis’ carried a makeover and labelled themselves as ‘Libeert’. Ditto with the mobile wallet app ‘ISIS’. They opted for ‘Softcard’.

Individuals have no such luck because you can’t chuck away your identity in a flash. You’ve got to live with it like a good fruit in a stinky basket.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Hu's Who of China

When Modi was busy taking his famous selfie with the terracotta warriors, a respected newspaper quizzed a few Chinese about what they thought of India. The responses were quite revelatory. Uniformly, nearly everyone viewed us as a disorderly, Buddhist nation with an ancient past and an unattractive present akin to what was showcased in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.

Before we laugh off the unflattering references citing crass ignorance, let’s imagine a reverse vox pop. If a cross section of our society were interviewed about China, we’re likely to portray our neighbour as a country of look-alikes hiding behind the Great Wall manufacturing cheap goods in labour camps all while suppressing democracy, and plotting world domination.

Oh yes, we’re as pathetic, blinkered and clueless about their culture as they are about us. For example, we don’t even know that the conventional ‘last name’ is the first name for most Chinese. So Mao Zedong or Xi Jinping would have been Zedong Mao and Jinping Xi in any other part of the world!

Another eyebrow raising fact is that close to 40% of the population have the same ten surnames. Wang (meaning: King) is the most popular surname. Nearly 92 million people in China are Wangs. May be that’s why Wang’s Kitchen was picked when some foodie was thinking of a befitting name for a Chinese eatery.

Asides aside, we don’t even know what Chinese names mean. The ‘Chang’ in Michael Chang stands for ‘prosperity’. The ‘Lee’ in Bruce Lee alludes to the ‘plum fruit.’ The ‘Chan’ in Jackie Chan cues ‘grace’. And Mao in Mao Zedong curiously implies ‘hair’. For a man with a receding hairline, that’s quite an ironic surname!

Like most other nations, Chinese surnames broadly draw inspiration from dynasties (sample: Zhou), directions (Dong is west, Xi is east), official positions (Taishi is an allusion to the astronomy in-charge), craft (Gin is a potter, Wu is a wizard), and birth (Bo is the youngest, Ji is the eldest).

Sadly, the eminently punnable nature of the surnames, has given rise to a cottage industry of funny Chinese names. If you haven’t heard them yet: No Tsmo King is off ciggies, Chu Ying is into chicklets, Dum Gai is a doofus, Kum Hia is very approachable, Wei Ting is always put on hold and Sum Ting Wong symbolises the current state of equation between our two civilizations.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Two of a kind.

Try visualising twins. Most people of my vintage are likely to imagine a bowler hatted, walking stick wielding, black suit wearing, moustachioed imagery of two comic detectives who go by the names Thomson and Thompson. Now here’s the kicker: although they appear identical and have near-similar names, the fictional fact is, they aren’t at all twins!

Can you see the games the mind plays? Similar dressed people with similar names somehow create an illusion of sameness. That’s why child psychologists have implored parents time and again to stay away from the ‘Ramesh/Suresh’, ‘Seeta/Geeta’ and ‘Ram/Shyam’ templates. The theory is it impedes the development of a distinctive persona.

Despite the protestations of experts, moms and dads everywhere prefer a semblance of similarity while naming their twins. Part of the blame should be apportioned to our screenwriters who are downright lazy when it comes to devising nomenclature.

A cursory look at Bollywood and Kollywood will reveal the extent of predictability. In ‘Chaalbaaz’, Sridevi played Anju and Manju. The twin villains in ‘Ghajini’ were Ram and Lakshman. Back in the sixties, Neetu Singh acted as ‘Ganga’ and ‘Jamuna’ in ‘Do Kaliyaan’. Dharmendra doubled up as Ajay and Vijay in ‘Ghazab’ (a remake of Kalyanaraman).

Tamil actor Ajith takes the cake. In ‘Vaali’, he was Deva and Shiva. With 'Villain', he became Shiva and Vishnu. Finally in ‘Varalaaru’ he chose to be Vishnu and Jeeva. In Khiladi 420, Akshay Kumar appears as Dev and Anand. Although I must add, that things got a lot wilder with ‘Khiladi 786’. Akshay donned the avatars of Bahattar Singh and Tehattar Singh. For those of you who are clueless about Hindi, Bahattar is 72 while Tehattar is 73!

The most memorable twin names that I can remember in Tamil films, was in ‘Jeans’. Prashant essayed the roles of Vishwanathan and Ramamurthi, a nod to the music composer duo who dominated the industry before the Ilaiyaraja era.

Things have improved in Bollywood too. Aamir Khan slipped effortlessly into the skins of Sahir Khan and Samar Khan in ‘Dhoom 3’. Sahir and Samar are both Urdu words that have a connection with night/after dark. In contrast, Hollywood is a lot more creative. The Japanese twins in ‘Austin Powers in Goldmember’ were called ‘Fook Mi’ and ‘Fook Yu’. Surely, we can learn a trick or two from them!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Need for Swede

There’s a lot we don’t know about Sweden. Bet you didn’t know that moms and dads over there enjoy a baby break of 16 months which includes 2 months for the dad, all while taking home 77.6% of the salary.

Here’s another one. It’s mandatory for companies to offer at least one massage a month as perk. If you couldn’t believe your eyes, sample this: Income tax rates are rather high but people pay up gladly as college education is free and healthcare is virtually free!

The Swedes are indeed full of surprises. Apart from gifting us the greatest pop band (ABBA) and the finest tennis player (Bjorn Borg), the Scandinavians were also the earliest in framing naming laws. The Names Adoption Act of 1901 banished the established practice of affixing the father’s first name to new-borns and replaced it with the concept of family names, thereby bringing relief to thousands of babies of unknown parentage.

From a nation of Ericssons and Anderssons, people were empowered to choose surnames that were more descriptive of the family, ranging from topographic names like Soderberg (meaning: ‘from the south mountain’), Edberg (‘from the isthmus mountain’), and Lindberg (from the ‘lime tree mountain’) to pedigreed noble names like Hammarksjold (from the folks with the ‘hammershield’ insignia).

But with time, a nosy bureaucracy took over and used an updated version of the law to act as name inspectors who decide how children are named in Sweden. Consequently, a couple were denied the right to name their son as ‘Q’ citing failure to satisfy ‘basic linguistic requirements’.

Diana Ring had a similar experience when she baptized her child as ‘Token’. The Tax Authority (believe it or not, they decide names!) summarily rejected it on account of being ‘offensive’. Kasim Mats’ case is weirder. When his parents applied for a name change to Kasim Von, it was declared ‘inappropriate’ because ‘Von’ was seen as an aristocratic name not meant for commoners!

But parents are not giving up. They are going to court to get the matter sorted. When Michael and Karolina Tomaro were prevented from calling their infant ‘Metallica’, they took to legal recourse to challenge the move and were successful in rocking the veto. ‘Lego’ has been taken off the banned list too, thanks to a colourful court intervention.

These gaffes apart, the Swedes have been liberal enough to clear ‘Google’ for a search engineer father. So, it might still be worth it to make babies in Stockholm.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Being bird brained.

Kingfisher is the beer that made the Mallyas rich. Eagle is the handy thermos flask you carry to hospitals. Dove is the soap that claims it isn’t a soap. Penguin is the publisher of books you never cared to read. Crane is that paaku thool (betel nut) with that irritating jingle. A top-of-mind-awareness test of bird names is likely to throw up such learned responses from the smartest of city dwellers. That’s how much we know about the winged creatures.

For a generation obsessed with ‘Angry Birds’ and ‘Avian Flu’, it’s quite ironical that we can’t tell a crane from a stork, or a falcon from a kite. To cure ourselves of our collective ignorance, let’s go on a wild goose chase to up our bird IQ by a few notches.

What’s common to the cuckoo, the owl, the kookaburra, and the cock? If you blinked like a dying tube light, let’s put you out of your agony by pointing out that these birds are named after the distinctive sound they make. Owl, for instance, is derived from the Sanskrit ‘Ulluka’ which in turn flows from the ululating call it makes. I’d add the Indian crow and the New Zealand Kiwi to the list.

Appearances and plumage also play a role in the nomenclature. The flame-like orangish red colour of the feathers, give the flamingo (from Spanish ‘flamengo’) its flamboyant label. Eagle comes from the Latin ‘Aquila’ and it means ‘water-coloured’ or dark hued bird. Along the same lines, Penguin draws its roots from ‘Pen Gwyn’ which implies ‘white head’ in Welsh.

Sometimes misnomers have resulted in ludicrous choices. America’s favourite thanksgiving bird, the ‘Turkey’, is actually not from Turkey. It’s a native species often confused with the Guinea fowl, which incidentally was introduced to Europe from the Mediterranean country. The resulting confusion gave rise to ‘Turkey’ which incidentally is referred to in Turkey as ‘Hindi’ because it’s thought to have been imported from India! The albatross has a similar tale. In the early days, it was mixed up with the pelican and was hence christened from the Spanish word ‘alcatruz’ (meaning: water carrier).

Other common birds have rather pedestrian origins. The German word for ‘singer’ gave rise to Swan. Rooster was whipped up when ‘cock’ was found to be unparliamentary. Pigeon is literally ‘young chirping bird’. And many think ‘dove’ is related to the past tense of ‘dive’ in reference to its flight. Hope that left you happy as a lark!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

How Apt Was That!

TM Soundararajan is a household name in Tamil Nadu. A playback singer beyond compare, he was the trademark voice of Sivaji Ganesan and MGR in countless hits. A friend of a friend often poked fun at his ‘ganeer kural’ (Tamil euphemism for being ‘high on decibels’) by labelling him as SOUNDararajan. That set me thinking. Does the name forebode your profession?

Is it an uncanny coincidence that William Wordsworth turned out to be a poet, Margaret Court became a tennis player, and Usain Bolt chose to be a sprinter? Actually, many wise people have applied their mind to this hypothesis.

Celebrated psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung saw a meaningful pattern in it. Chicago columnist Franklin Pierce Adams went a step further and coined the word ‘Aptronym’ to chronicle names that match the occupation or character of a person.

From the evidence in hand, one can safely say that aptronyms are not as commonplace as hair on Anil Kapoor’s chest or cuss words on Virat Kohli’s lips. But they are not a rare commodity either.

The New Scientist magazine was once famously flummoxed when they received an article on the Polar Regions from a Daniel Snowman and a piece on Subterranean London from one Richard Trench.

There are many more chucklesome examples on the internet. Let’s start with Sara Louise Blizzard. A weather presenter on BBC, she’s apparently weathered many a storm with her surname. Then there’s Dr. Kevin De Cock of the World Health Organisation. The genital man (oops…gentleman), predictably heads the AIDS project. Journalist William Headline was often described by reputed anchor Wolf Blitzer as having the ‘best name in news’ as everything about him was headline material.

The eeriest one I’ve heard is Dr. Russell Brain. He grew up to be an authoritative neurologist. Another name that’s likely to make you go ‘good heavens’ is Alan Heavens. He’s a renowned professor at the Imperial College London teaching astrophysics!

Everyone’s favourite is Sue Yoo. She’s currently the legal director at Verizon. From what one hears the serial digs at her name made her consider turning a lawyer. At the other end of the crime spectrum is Christopher Coke. He’s a Jamaican drug lord with cocaine literally in his veins. They say his dad Lester Coke was an even bigger snorter. I’ll sign off with Thomas Crapper. True to his name, he founded a company that made the flushing toilet ubiquitous. If that shit didn’t unnerve you, nothing else will.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Gem of a Story

Sharon Stone is not the only precious stone known to mankind. Apparently there are other pretenders to the throne. My first exposure to uncut gems was through movies.

There was this old-world multiplex in Chennai with theatre halls that went by the names: ‘Safire’, ‘Blue Diamond’ and ‘Emerald’. As a callow kid, I used to wonder what Safire really meant as it sounded rather distinguished.

Thankfully, Etymology Online solved the puzzle for me by pointing out that Sapphire is derived from the Greek word for ‘blue stone’. The label was chosen because the Greeks wrongly assumed that they were describing Lapis Lazuli. As it turns out, Sapphire is an Aluminium Oxide mineral while Lapis Lazuli happens to be a silicate.

That brings us to the next question. How on earth did they hit upon the exotic name ‘Lapis Lazuli’? Well, Lapis means ‘stone’ in Latin and ‘Lazuli’ is from the Persian word for ‘Azure’. What better way to allude to the bluish hue, no?

Aquamarine and Turquoise are two more blue stones that get a lot of press. For the curious minded, Aquamarine literally means ‘sea water colour’ and Turquoise is the French way of saying ‘Turkish stone’.

Amethyst has a beautiful yarn. Named after ‘Amethystos’ (meaning: ‘not drunk’), a nymph who was supposedly being stalked by the Greek god of wine Dionysus. Amethystos spurned his advances and wished to remain chaste. So she prayed to the deity Artemis who turned her into a pure white stone. A remorseful Dionysus shed copious tears of wine over the stone thereby turning it purple!

Another myth involves Persephone (daughter of Zeus) and Hades (god of underworld). As the story goes, Hades abducted Persephone and when he was forced to part with her, he handed out some magical pomegranate seeds that had the power to draw her back to the underworld whenever she consumed the fruit. Granatium is the Greek word for pomegranate seeds. And that’s the origin of the red Garnet.

Incidentally, Ruby is Latin for ‘red’. Zircon is Persian for ‘gold-coloured’. Onyx is Greek for ‘finger nail’. And Emerald is derived from the Sanskrit/Tamil word ‘maragata’.

Opal and Topaz have an Indian origin too. Opal is from the Sanskrit word ‘Uppal’ or ‘precious stone’. While Topaz is inspired from ‘Tapas’ or ‘heat’. Hope you’ve enjoyed these pearls.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Panty And Friends

Panty is a very coy word. At least in India. It’s not to be bandied about in public. But if you’ve ever been to any of the IITs, chances are you’d have heard the boys talking about Panty excitedly as if it’s their chaddi-buddy. That’s because anyone with the surname ‘Pant’ is often addressed with this nickname!

Scandalous, smart and striking nicks are a common feature, particularly in IIT Madras, where everyone is rumoured to have one. If you’re skinny, you’ll probably be called ‘Paper’. If you look undernourished but have a prominent rump, you’ll be christened as ‘Paperweight’. A little obesity may earn you an ‘Appu’ (remember, the Asiad elephant?). A lanky fellow may become ‘Ganna’ (Hindi for sugarcane). A rather well-endowed girl gets ‘Oops’ (Out of proportions). A typical thayir-saadam case may be branded as ‘Fruit’. And the one who gets the most moist-eyed is ‘Senti’ (short for sentimental).

Apart from these usual suspects, sometimes your name decides your nickname. If you happen to be Badrinarayanan, expect to be hailed as ‘Battery’. The Prabhakarans of the world can’t escape the ‘LTTE’ tag. G Ram Prasad may get zipped into GRamP or just ‘Grumpy’. Ram Bhaskaran will be reduced to the geeky ‘Rhombus’. A Bhoopalan may be surgically altered into ‘Boobs’. An Aravind Kuttan may get a firang makeover with ‘Orkut’. But the Balakrishnans have, for centuries been, blessed with the same old ‘Balls’!

Mannerisms and behavioural traits also have a say in the choice of nicknames. Gadget freaks attract the label ‘Q’ (the man behind the crazy weaponry in James Bond flicks). Flatulent blokes are given missile names such as ‘Scud’. Those who butter up get ‘Soap’. The one with the access to colourful reading material is ‘Pondy’. The sleepy ones get ‘Charasi’. And the rote champions are always ‘Maggus’.

Campus sobriquets with stories are the most liked. There was once a lad from Goa. During ragging he was mocked as ‘Son of a beach’. Someone saw the potential in it and hit upon the name ‘Marina’! Another chap had a hairdo that resembled a porcupine which incidentally sounds like ‘Porukki Payan’ (or rascal in Tamil). From that day, his hostel mates termed him as ‘Porki’. Although that may sound like name calling the fact remains that nicks are always meant to be taken in jest the right spirit!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Not OK Kanmani

Article 15 of the Constitution of India specifically prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Wonder why our founding fathers didn’t add language to that list. If they had, the patently discriminatory policy of discouraging English titles by providing tax incentives for Tamil names wouldn’t have stood legal scrutiny.

Before you jump at me for defending a foreign language, allow me to point out that English is one of the two official languages of the Indian Union. And usage of English in our movie titles has been prevalent since 1936 when Miss Kamala hit the screens.

From that era till now, filmmakers have always taken care to choose only those words that would resonate with the masses. The most preferred tactic was to prefix a name with a degree, profession, or designation. ICS Mappillai (1940), Server Sundaram (1964), Major Chandrakanth (1966), CID Shankar (1970), General Chakravarthy (1977), Justice Gopinath (1978), Lawyer Suhasini (1987), Sethupathi IPS (1994) and Suyetchai MLA (2006) are a few celebrated examples in this sub-genre.

If you really analyse, how does one think of Tamil equivalents for IPS, CID, Major, and MLA? You have to accept these words as part of your language, no?

The logic is the same with usage of Christian names in titles. Does the Rajnikant movie ‘Johnny’ not qualify for being ‘Tamil’? Why must the Vijayakant starrer, ‘Alexander’, be perceived as any less local than the Karthi flick ‘Alex Pandian’? Didn’t Tamilnadu queue up to watch the Satyaraj film ‘Walter Vetrivel’? Why should the Tamil movie ‘Romeo Juliet’ be paying 15% more entertainment tax just because it chose to be true to the original play?

Another question that must be posed is: Haven’t words like ‘Hero’, ‘Pass Mark’, ‘News’, ‘Youth’, ‘Five Star’, ‘Pizza’, ‘Star’, ‘Jeans’, ‘Time’, ‘Duet’, ‘Whistle’, ‘Junior Senior’, ‘Boys’ and ‘Autograph’ become a part of the everyday lexicon in Karunanidhi land? So why shouldn’t they be treated as part of the Dravida culture?

Somehow, for reasons I’ve never fathomed, our artists keep accepting these diktats so meekly. Perhaps the time has come to reopen the debate on what constitutes our culture. Else, even a Mani Ratnam will be forced to settle for the watered down ‘O Kadhal Kanmani’ for a few dollars more.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Bang In The Middle

Kiefer Sutherland, the actor best known for playing Jack Bauer in the popular TV series ‘24’, is worth remembering for one more reason. He’s the guy with five middle names!

No. I am not kidding. Kiefer Sutherland is actually ‘Kiefer William Frederick Dempsey George Rufus Sutherland’. But that didn’t get him into the record books as Adolph Wolfe+585 (the man with 585 more characters in his surname) beat him hollow with 25 eye-popping middle names.

That raises the question as to what is a middle name. Technically, it’s the thing that appears between a given name and a surname. For instance, Damodardas is the middle name of Narendra Modi. You would have known that had you paid more attention to his 4.31 crore pin striped suit!

Anyways, the point to bear in mind is, middle names were largely a Western tradition (even in India, it’s a Western Indian phenomenon). It came into vogue around the nineteenth century when there was a sudden rush to take an alternative first name as the centrepiece. A few folks who were not particularly happy with their given name chose to flaunt it, instead. W. Somerset Maugham, J. Edgar Hoover, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Joseph Rudyard Kipling are some famous examples.

In Russia, the middle names are patronymic (derived from father’s name). They usually occur with an –ovich suffix for males and –vna for females. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and Anna Sergeyvna Kournikova are cases in point. The Chinese don’t have any concept of middle names just like us South Indians.

A few weeks ago, twitter went crazy coining befitting middle names for celebrities. The creations varied from the downright insulting to the terribly funny. Virat *beep* Kohli was a nod to his sledging. Robert DLF Vadra was a tribute to his notorious land deals. Rajdeep Buy My Book Sardesai was a dig at his shameless plug of his tome.

Beyond trolling, many indulged in some delicious wordplay. Here are some pearls: ‘Hashim Dabur Amla’, ‘Naomi Kilo Watts’, ‘Stevie Seven Day Wonder’, ‘Stanley Rubik Kubrick’, ‘Cat On-A-Hot-Tin-Roof Stevens’, ‘David Take A Bowie’, ‘Wayne Loonie Rooney’, ‘Tiger Lost-In-The Woods’, ‘Charlie Sexma Sheen’, ‘Jim Cash N Carrey’, ‘Rock Paper Scissors Hudson’, ‘Lady GooGoo Gaga’, ‘Paul I Feel Like A Newman’ and ‘Whitney I Think We Have A Problem Houston’. The most ingenious one was reserved for the American Rapper ‘Jay ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXY Z’. Ain’t that cool?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Say it with flowers

All of us are guilty of reducing flowers to the level of the Facebook ‘like’. It’s become the default placeholder reaction when you have pretty much nothing to say.

No wonder, it’s raining bouquets on birthdays, death days, victories, defeats, induction ceremonies, farewell bashes, wedding receptions, and after-divorce parties. The ugly truth is that but for a handful of florists no one knows a thing about any flower – be it daisies or daffodils. All we can talk about is the superficials.

Let me attempt to change things around by serving you some dew fresh trivia that will hopefully make your conversations more flowery.

For every sunflower you’ve chanced upon, there’s a moonflower (a species of morning glory that resembles the full moon) blossoming at night. And somewhere in the North American woodlands, during May and June, one can sight the starflower belonging to the Primrose family.

Talking of the rose, several stars have had variants named after them. Audrey Hepburn, Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Lady Gaga and Dolly Parton, are among the beauties who got lucky. Among male celebs: Cary Grant, Paul McCartney, Freddie Mercury, Givenchy, and Yves Saint Laurent, have been chosen for the rare honour. Aishwarya Rai is the only Indian to enjoy this privilege. She has a Dutch tulip against her name.

Quite a few famous flowers have been christened after its discoverers: 'Dahlia' is not a nod to Roald Dahl but Swedish botanist Anders Dahl; 'Plumeria' (aka Frangipani) is an ode to seventeenth century French naturalist Charles Plumier; the world’s largest flower ‘Raflessia Arnoldi’ is a twin tribute to the founder of Singapore, Sir Thomas Raffles, and his friend Dr. Joseph Arnold; while 'Gardenia' owes its existence to Scottish zoologist Dr. Alexander Garden.

Sometimes shapes influence the moniker. 'Dandelion' is derived from the French phrase dent de lion which is a reference to the ‘lion tooth’ like leaf. The orchid’s tuber resembles the testicles, hence orchi (Greek word for the male gonads) was deployed as the root word for the flower name. Since science is gender neutral, you also have the ‘Clitoria Ternatea’, an efflorescence that bears a striking similarity to the female genitals!

Some flora are the offspring of colours. Lilac (from Sanskrit word ‘nilak’ meaning bluish), Chrysanthemum (Latin for ‘golden flower’) and Iris (Greek for ‘rainbow’) are the most fragrant examples. My mind is budding with many more tales. Will weave that garland, some other day!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Nicked And Taken

If there were a world cup for creating nicknames, the Aussies would walk away with all the honours. Unlike the run-of-the-mill fare served by others, the Baggy Green coinages are invariably cutesy, clever and capricious.

David Boon, the batsman who scored 7,422 runs from 107 tests, was immortalized as ‘Kegs on Legs’ for his incredible feat of glugging 52 cans of beer during a famous flight to England. The New South Wales pacer Aaron Bird was whimsically referred to as ‘Flu’ during the times of the avian flu. Merv Hughes, the sledgehammer par excellence, who once taunted a struggling Robin Smith with the classic troll, “If you turn the bat over, you’ll get the instructions,” was christened ‘Fruitfly’ by his mates. The allusion was obviously to his pesky nature.

Classy jibes at fellow players has always been the norm, down under. When Mark Waugh scored four consecutive ducks, he was anointed ‘Audi’ (as a nod to their logo). Forecasting a fifth duck, his well-wishers were eager to label him as ‘Olympic’ but Mark got out of jail with a fighting 39 against West Indies.

Perhaps the most inspired choice was the smiling assassin Brett Lee’s. He became ‘Oswald’ as he batted after Lee (Shane Lee) and Harvey (Ian Harvey)!

England has its fair share of pearls. Tweaker Ashley Giles was often mocked by his colleagues with the nick ‘King of Spain’. The reference was to a club incident when commemorative mugs praising him as ‘King of Spin’ was wrongly printed as ‘King of Spain’.

Among the South Africans, the most lovable moniker belongs to fast bowler Mfunko Ngam. He was called ‘Chewey’ because his name felt like Chewey Ngam. Mean, no?

Even the Pakistanis have a better sense of humour than our stuck-up willow wielders. Umar Gul was designated as ‘Guldozer’ for his various demolition jobs. In contrast, Misbah-ul-Haq was blessed with ‘Mr. Tuk Tuk’ for his ability to grind the opposition to death with his stodgy defence. ‘The Wall’ just pales in comparison to the earthy charms of Mr. Tuk Tuk.

Let me round off with the sobriquet I liked the most. It was for the 6-foot-6 Kiwi batter Peter Fulton. He was called ‘Two-Metre Peter’. You can’t beat that, can you?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Numbers Game

Forecasting is risky business. You often end up looking like an embarrassed ass. But if and when you get it right, you can strut around smugly pretending to be an avatar of Nostradamus.

Although nearly all exit pollsters got the broad contours of the Delhi Polls right, nobody even came close to predicting an AAP tsunami and the BJP decimation. As an amateur numerologist, may be I should have given it a shot and used the mystic power of numbers to prognosticate about the polls. Anyways, it’s never too late to use the magic of hindsight to see if numerology could have got it right.

Before we start, it’s important to understand that the three most important numbers in numerology are birth number, destiny number and name number. For AAP (born on 26/11/2012), the triad of key numbers is 8, 6, and 1, as per the Chaldean system. For Arvind Kejriwal (born on 16/8/1968), his numerical coordinates are 7, 3 and 4.

The 2013 Assembly Elections were held on 4th of December 2013. Now if you notice 4th is in synchrony with Kejriwal’s name number. You’d be zapped to know that four is also the name number of Harsh Vardhan. So naturally, the last election was a stalemate between Kejriwal and Harsh Vardhan.

This year, the elections were held on 7th of February. As luck would have it, 7th is in resonance with Kejriwal’s birth number. Neither Kiran Bedi (born on 9/6/1949) nor Ajay Maken (born on 12/1/1964) had this advantage. Also, the counting was done on 10th, which again is in sync with AAP’s name number. Given these double edges, the race was totally loaded in favour of the Mufflerman.

So, is there any way Amit Shah could have staved off defeat? He could have, had he chosen Satish Upadhyay (born on 6/3/1962). Satish’s name number 8 matches with the destiny number of the election date. AAP smartly rendered him ineffective by cleverly doing an expose on his nexus with the power discom BSES.

In summary, it’s quite apparent that AAP was destined to storm to power in Delhi. Last time around, they had bagged 28 seats (2+8 = 10 = 1), which is identical with the name number of AAP. This time, they ended up with 67 (6+7 = 13 = 4), which mirrors Kejriwal’s name number. Either way, numerology was the winner!

POST SCRIPT: The swearing in ceremony is on 14/2/2015. Do the math. 1+4+2+2+0+1+5 = 15 = 1+5 = 6. Whose destiny number is 6? AAP's! Don't you see a pattern now?

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Almirah of Etymologies


Okay, quiz time.

Which European empire lasted the longest in India?

I expect quite a few of you to get this wrong. No, it’s not the Brits. Even accounting for the East India Company, they ruled us from 1612 to 1947. That’s like 335 years.

In contrast, the French sphere of influence lasted for 288 years. While the Dutch presence was for 220 years. The guys who beat them, fair and square, were the Portuguese. They lorded over Goa for nearly 450 years!

With such a long footprint, the Portuguese naturally influenced our culture in ways we can’t even fathom. For starters, they gave us the potato, tomato, pineapple, guava, papaya, cashew, capsicum, chilli, tapioca and the cheeku fruit. May be I should add peanuts, corn, okra, litchi, vindaloo, kalkals and tobacco too.

A bouquet of words in our native lexicon owe their origins to Vasco da Gama land. The Tamil word for key is nearly the same as the Portuguese ‘Chave’. Dravidian purists would be aghast to know that ‘jannal’ (window), ‘rosa’ (rose), ‘koppai’ (cup), ‘mesai’ (table), ‘pena’ (pen), ‘pippa’ (barrel), mestri (mason) and ‘verandah’ (porch), have a mystic Lisbon connect.

Hindi has been a liberal borrower as well. ‘Balti’ (bucket), ‘santra’ (orange), ‘ayah’ (nanny), ‘kamra’ (room), ‘pav’ (bread), ‘chai’ (tea), ‘biskut’ (biscuit), ‘sabun’ (soap), ‘padri’ (priest), ‘almari’ (almirah), ‘kameez’ (clothing), ‘kaju’ (cashew), ‘batata’ (potato), and ‘madira’ (wine) derive their roots from words minted in Portugal. Even colloquialisms such as ‘istri’, ‘toliya’ and ‘iskuul’ come from Portuguese words ‘esterar’ (to press), ‘toalha’ (towel) and ‘escola’ (school).

Some very familiar angrezi shabd have a similar linguistic connection. Labrador, for example, is named so because it was first bred in the Labrador Peninsula in Canada. Incidentally, the area was discovered by the Portuguese explorer Joao Fernandes Lavrador.

Emu, the largest bird native to Australia and a synonym for Ponzi schemes in Tamil Nadu, is etymologically a Portuguese word that means ‘ostrich’.

So many more Indianisms like palanquin, mosquito, indigo, commando, coconut, caste, buffalo, banyan, breeze, cobra, jackfruit, pomfret, tank and teak, wouldn’t be around, had a 15th century bearded sailor not uttered, ‘Eastward Ho!’.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The 2-in-1 nation

If Bombay can become Mumbai, Calcutta can mutate into Kolkata, and Madras to Chennai, how long will it take before someone moots the idea of dropping the name ‘India’ altogether in favour of something more native?

Blasphemous as it may sound, the fact remains that many oddballs in our country have already started voicing such suggestions. During the 2004 elections, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party had promised to rename India as Bharat. Just recently, Subramanian Swamy, the maverick of mavericks, went on record demanding a name change to Hindustan.

To settle the matter once and for all, it might help to revisit the Constituent Assembly Debates in 1949. The very same issues were discussed threadbare by our founding fathers. Bharat, Hindustan, Hind, Bharatbhumi, Bharatvarsha and Aryavrat were all tabled for consideration and shot down one by one.

Hindustan was vetoed for several obvious reasons. The most hilarious logic spouted against it was voiced by Kallur Subba Rao. He argued that Hindustan is the Persian way of saying Sindustan (the land of Sindu or Indus). Since the river is in Pakistan, the only nation that is truly entitled to call itself as Hindustan is Pakistan! Can someone convey that to Swamy, please?

Kallur Subba Rao and many others were boisterous in their backing for Bharata. The inspirational freedom movement slogan ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ was the biggest driver of support. It also helped that for centuries the subcontinent had been referred to as Bharatvarsha by ancient Indian texts. Even the venerable Vedas called us all the progeny of Puru dynasty King Bharata.

But Ambedkar wasn’t a man easily swayed by scriptures or mythology. He saw immense utility in the name ‘India’, especially in international fora, and hence pushed it through with all the authority he could muster. But when it became clear that he’d face resistance, he struck a compromise of sorts by coining the famous line, ‘India that is Bharat’. Thanks to his half-measure, we ended up with a split personality. Just like Ireland that is Eire and Japan that is Nippon. When one looks back, one wonders, if he was being too clever by half.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

I am Charlie

Till that bloody day in Paris when 12 brave hearts were butchered for standing up for free speech, the name ‘Charlie’ meant so many things to so many people. In the shadowy streets of London, it was the code word for ‘Cocaine’. Among giggly Victorian women ‘Charlie’s dead’ was the euphemism for ‘your slip is showing’. For men high on testosterone, ‘Charlies’ meant a pair of hooters. The Oxford English Dictionary refers to ‘Charlie’ as the Brit slang for a ‘fool or simpleton’. But January 7th changed everything.

Out of the blue, the rallying cry “Je Suis Charlie” (French for ‘I am Charlie’) emerged as the collective middle finger equivalent for everyone opposed to intimidation of freedom of expression.

The ‘Charlie Hebdo Attack’ made us all pause for a minute. And ponder about weighty issues like: ‘What the hell does Hebdo mean?’ If you thought along those trivial lines, you’re not alone, my friend!

To clarify matters, Hebdo, is derived from hebdomadaire, the French word for ‘weekly’. So Charlie Hebdo essentially means ‘Charlie Weekly’. Originally known as ‘Hara-kiri Hebdo’, the satirical newspaper took its name from another comic magazine titled ‘Charlie Mensuel’ which in turn borrowed its Charlie from ‘Charlie Brown’, the Peanuts character. The urban legend is that ‘Charlie’ was picked because it was an inside joke on Charles de Gaulle, the then French President.

Let’s dissect the pedigree of ‘Charlie’ further. The diminutive of ‘Charles’, it literally implies ‘Free Man’. Given what transpired in Paris, very unsurprising, no?

Charlie has been the famous first name for scores of distinguished men. Charlie Chaplin, the comedian extraordinaire, was actually christened after his dad. Charlie Sheen was different though. He was born Carlos Irwin Estevez. ‘Charley’ was also the screenname of Tamil actor Manohar Velmurugan Thangasamy. Incidentally, like Rajnikanth, he owes it to the late K. Balachander.

Contrary to common belief, the comic character ‘Charlie Brown’ is not a nod to its creator Charles Schulz. By his own admission, it was a tribute to his friend from art school days.

Then there’s the saxophonist Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker who owed his middle name to his childhood habit of being a ‘Yardbird’ or someone who hung out in the yard outside clubs listening to the bands playing jazz inside.

There are many more Charlies worth talking about. But for now, let’s raise a toast to the one who redefined them all with their pungent wit.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Why Sarkari Names Suck.

There’s this person I know who spouts MBA style jargon every day. He seriously thinks it’s cool to speak in acronyms. He reduces everything to an alphanumeric mantra. If it’s 5Ts (Talent, Tradition, Tourism, Trade, Technology) one day, the very next day, he would get rapturous about the 3Ds (Democracy, Demography, Demand) and the 3Ss (Skill, Scale, Speed). By the way, NITI (National Institution for Transforming India) is his latest obsession.

By now, you would have realised that the person I am alluding to is NaMo. Despite being an outstanding communicator with a visible penchant for wordsmithery, he’s been less than impressive with the nomenclature of his pet government schemes.

The man who gave us the very catchy RSVP (Rahul, Sonia, Vadra, Priyanka) has somehow picked unexciting lemons like ‘Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana’, ‘Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana’, and ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan’ for programs with the remarkable potential to transform the face of India.

Perhaps Modi picked the bad habit from previous governments that have been guilty of burying life altering concepts with mind numbing names. Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) is a telling example. Here’s a scheme that ensures 100 days of paid work to every villager, and they go and give it a pedestrian label that feels as long as Warnakulasuriya Patabendige Ushantha Joseph Chaminda Vaas! Even soaps, detergents and mediocre shampoos that do far lesser have far more impactful names.

The problem really lies in using words that have no connection with the masses. When was the last time you heard anyone using ‘Shram’ for ‘labour’, ‘Krishi' for ‘agriculture’, ‘Protsahan’ for ‘stimulus’ and ‘Pravasi’ for ‘NRI’? You need to either be a black belt from Hindi Prachar Sabha or a newscaster from Doordarshan to dabble in such gobbledegook.

So, why, oh why, should the very savvy Narendra Modi choose an ‘Apprentice Protsahan Yojana’ or a ‘Swavlamban Abhiyaan’? Why not take a cue from his pal Jayalalithaa who preferred ‘Amma Canteen’ over something as banal as ‘Mukhya Mantri Antyodaya Anna Surakasha Bhojanalay’! Yes, she overdid it with Amma Cement and what not, but at least she applied the pithy principles of branding and kept it simple and smart. Time to think KISS, Modi!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Eye Catchers of 2014

2014 was not an easy year to vie for your attention. Aamir Khan had to literally drop his pants and cover his family jewels with a retro transistor. Kim Kardashian had to bare her galaxy-sized rear to break the internet. Smriti Irani had to pull out her 6-day Yale degree to acquire a smidgen of respectability. And Mangalyaan had to cover a distance of 650 million kilometres to get the earthling’s approval.

Given this need for ultra-showmanship, is it possible to make heads turn by merely using a name? A few brave souls have proved that it’s very much in the realm of possibility.

‘6-5=2’ is a stand out case. The perplexing algebraic equation is the title of a Kannada horror flick, made on a shoestring budget. When the director didn’t have an extra dime for publicity, he decided to tease his audience with a cryptic name with viral value. The trick paid off. The 30-lakh film went on to collect 1.5 crores at the box office!

The niche English movie ‘Finding Fanny’ was an equally bold attempt. Fanny is ostensibly the nickname of Stephanie Fernandes in the road trip comedy. But Homi Adajania’s audience got the naughty double entendre and showed up to cheer for his cunning stunt.

‘Sulemani Keeda’ (Meaning: Pain in the butt) and ‘Fugly’ (Slang for Effin Ugly) tried the same formula and got tongues wagging. Likewise, the punk girl band ‘Childbirth’ took the Indie music world by storm with their iconic number on one-night stands that goes ‘I Only F*ked You As A Joke’. Fortunately for them, the joke turned out to be a chartbuster.

Being irreverent is not the only mantra for grabbing eyeballs. Sometimes length should suffice. Disney opted for the longest movie title of the year with ‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day’ much against the wishes of some marketing executives. But the gamble worked. Director Shankar’s one letter ‘I’ is the polar opposite which will reap its dividends, come January.

Among the other newsmakers, Megan Fox caused a splash by naming her child ‘Bodhi Ransom’. Recording artist Azaelia Banks courted fame with her classily named debut album ‘Broke with Expensive Taste’. Irish author Eimear McBride earned hosannas for her first novel with the very evocative ‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’. South London band ‘Fat White Family’ continues to tickle curiosity with their unusual moniker.

But personally, my pick of the year, is the New York pork joint ‘Arrogant Swine’. You’ve got to give it to them for going the whole hog.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Raju Ban Gaya Name Guru

Would you have watched ‘PK’ had the film been called Hey Bhagwaan or let’s say Badey Kaanwaala? The fanboy in you would have still headed to the multiplex but I am willing to bet my last paisa that your level of intrigue would have been a lot lesser.

Clearly, Rajkumar Hirani knows a thing or two about names than you can possibly imagine. His titles are always character centric but like any income tax return, it hides more than it reveals. ‘Munna Bhai MBBS’ gives no inkling of ‘Jaadu ki jhappi’. ‘Lage Raho’ gives no clue of ‘Gandhigiri’ and ‘3 Idiots’ doesn’t feel like a satire on the education system.

That said, the choice of PK was partly fortuitous as Raju Hirani had originally planned to name it as ‘Talli’ or more specifically ‘Ek Tha Talli’. The release of ‘Ek Tha Tiger’ forced a rethink and he chose PK over ‘Talli’. May be because ‘Talli’ creates a misimpression that the film is about an alcoholic while PK can pass off as a nickname or the initials of a person.

Even with character names, no one has come up with quirkier ones than Raju. The lead character of Chetan Bhagat’s ‘Five Point Someone’ was Ryan Oberoi. Any lesser director adapting the story would have faithfully stuck to Ryan. But Mr. Hirani is not your average auteur.

He picked Ranchoddas Shamaldas Chanchad instead. The other alias for Aamir in the movie was Phunsukh Wangdu. In another era, Ranchoddas would have been the hero’s dad and Phunsukh possibly a Nepalese sidekick. To select un-heroic monikers for heroes requires chutzpah. And Raju saab has plenty of it.

His desire to stay away from the same old Vijay, Rahul and Raj has led the genial director to the doorsteps of the unusual. Anushka plays the role of ‘Jagat Janani’ urf ‘Jaggu’ in PK. I can’t recollect a single Hindi movie heroine bestowed with such loopiness.

The minor characters in the Hirani ensemble are always a delight. If Circuit and Short Circuit had the audience in splits in ‘Munnabhai’, Centimeter and Millimeter took the cake in ‘3 Idiots’. Thankfully, he’s not repeated the trick in ‘PK’. And that only means ‘All Izz Well’.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

How Tamil got its Dum.

The Bhai in Rajinikanth country has a different connotation from the Bhai in Salman Khan’s universe. Out here, he’s the god who feeds our greed for biriyani. He’s the walking-talking google for any movie you want. He’s the grocer who discovered home delivery long before BigBasket did.

Lungis or leather jackets, perfumes or pop-up toasters, mobiles or microwaves, high street or low street, he’s the go-to guy for everything. Among other things, the affable neighbourhood Muslim also managed to spice up Madras Tamil by generously sprinkling some Urdu into the equation. Let’s explore his delectable contributions.

Let’s start with Jalsa. The city slang for ‘having pure pleasure’ is derived from the Urdu word for social gatherings famous for their convivial atmosphere. Majaa is no different. It’s a derivation from ‘mazaa’ (meaning: fun).

One more expression of enjoyment Tamaashu is an offspring of ‘Tamasha’, the Persian description for entertainment spectacles. Yet another term for ‘ostentation’ is Jabardastu which came from ‘Zabardast’ (grand). It’s no coincidence that a considerable part of the Chennai vocabulary devoted to celebration, has Urdu roots. One can attribute it to the domineering influence of the Nawabs of Arcot, who lived near the precincts of the city.

Street Urdu of Triplicane left a more profound imprint on the local lingo. The expletive ‘Bazaari aurat’ (slut) gave rise to Bajaari (cheap woman). The swear word ‘Beimani’ (cheat) morphed with time into Bemani (oaf). And ‘Bevkoof’ (fool) was sauteed and roasted into Baeku (idiot).

Every smoker’s nirvana, the Dum, is from the Hindustani word for ‘breath’. Sarakku, the bootlegged liquor, owes its origins to ‘sarak’ which means ‘to steal’. Another popular campus parlance ‘maal’ (matter) refers to ‘goods’ in Urdu.

Quite a few of today’s jaam bajaar jargon has an etymological history worth sharing. Mamool (the dreaded bribe) is from Mamun (money). Bejaar (being distressed about a problem) is a direct descendant of ‘Bezaar’ (displeased).

Balti (somersault of the turncoat) comes from ‘Palti’ (flip). Ushaar Party (Smart Alec) is an obvious derivation from ‘Hoshiyaar’ (clever). The Tamil word for breakfast (Nashta) is also a loan word. Even ‘Ghatham Ghatham’, the superstar’s trademark quip in the film ‘Baba’, is from Khatam (finito). Having gifted so much to our lives, the Bhai surely deserve a lot more gethu (respect), don’t you think?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Starry Eyed Babies

When actress Genelia D’Souza delivered a baby boy last week, I could see the name coming from a thousand miles. Mrs. Riteish Deshmukh named her child ‘Riaan’ (the Persian word for ‘Little King’).

Riaan was quite predictable as it happens to a portmanteau of sorts of the parents’ first names. I am quite sure, if it had been a daughter, they’d have called her ‘Riaah’. More because Riaah and Riaan have the same name number as their numerology-loving dad!

To put things in perspective, slicing and dicing sound components of mom and pop names is the most common baby naming trick among Indian celebrities.

Forty years ago, when Ravi Tandon (the director of ‘Khel Khel Mein’) and his wife Veena were fishing for a sweet name for their girl, they christened her as ‘Raveena Tandon’. In 2001, Saurav Ganguly and Dona Roy applied the same template when they picked ‘Sana’ for their little one. The ‘Riaan’ nomenclature is but the latest instance of deployment of this time-tested formula.

Incidentally, Amrita Arora’s son is Rayan and Madhur Dixit’s boy is Ryan. The inadvertent choice of a commonplace name is again a commonplace problem in India. Which is why celebs walk that extra mile to look different.

Fathers and mothers in search of uniqueness would do well to worship Arshad Warsi and Maria Goretti. They selected the rather bizarre ‘Zeke Zidaan’ and ‘Zene Zoe’ for their kids! Another Zed freak is Shikhar Dhawan. Although he chose the more conventional Zorawar (Arabic for ‘brave’).

Opting for foreign sounding names is the easiest way to stand out from the unwashed masses. When Farah Khan and Sirish Kunder had triplets, they turned to Russian for ‘Anya’ and ‘Czar’. The third one was given the very Latin ‘Diva’. Farhan Akhtar, true to his twitter moniker of being @FarOutAkhtar, handpicked the Japanese ‘Akira’ and the Buddhist ‘Shakya’ for his children. Sushmita Sena favoured the French ‘Renee (meaning ‘reborn’) for her daughter.

Konkana Sen Sharma and Ranvir Shorey have to be handed the most literate couple award for naming their son as ‘Haroon’ after Salman Rushdie’s ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’. But the most well-read Indian cricketer Rahul Dravid, wasn’t very adventurous when he chose Samit and Anvay for his sons. Like always, perhaps, he was playing by the book!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Getting Breathless Over Wireless

In the days when I used to trip over geeky pickup lines, I came across one that really cracked me up. It goes something like this: “Is your name Wi-Fi ‘coz I am feeling a connection?” In my head I wondered what if the repartee had been: “No, I am Bluetooth. And I don’t think your device is up for pairing!”

Cheesy lines apart, that was the first time, I gave Wi-Fi some deep thought. I figured the word was invented in 1999 by Interbrand when a bunch of nerds wanted a catchier equivalent for ‘IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence’. Wi-Fi was a play on Hi-Fi and it’s a fine example of how some deft naming has made our world, a hipper place.

Talking of hip nomenclature, it might help to cast a lazy eye on your neighbourhood wireless networks. I can assure you that it can be a neat source of levity. Imagine the sheer pleasure of discovering a ‘Mi-fi, Not Your-Fi’ instead of a bland network-operator name. Imagine if the Ambi Mama next door labels his network as ‘Wi Believe I Can Fi’, won’t you see him very differently?

Being inventive is a pre-requisite for nerds. Which is why on the internet, you’ll discover many genres of wicked Wi-Fi names. Here are a few samplers to get you initiated:

An IT administrator once chose ‘Hack If You Can’ as the network name. He was stumped, the very next day, when he discovered someone had changed it to ‘Challenge Accepted’.

Another online story is pretty legendary. A mother, not exactly known to be facile with her mobile phone, kept bugging her son by constantly asking him ‘which network is ours?’ The son solved the problem once for all by christening it as ‘Use This One Mom’.

The ones I like more are programmed to piss-off pesky neighbours who wish to leech off your bandwidth. ‘No Free Wi-Fi For You’, ‘Screw You’, ‘Get Your Own Damned Internet’, ‘YourNotWelcome’, ‘FBI Surveillance’ and ‘I Read Your Emails’ are telling examples of this sub-genre.

The best name award should perhaps be shared by ‘Pretty Fly For A Wi-Fi’, ‘TellYourWifiLoveHer’ and ‘The Promised LAN’. But my personal favourite is a coffee shop’s moniker. It says: ‘Buy Another Cup You Cheapskate’. How cool is that!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Makeover Mockery

Imagine if a new government were to pass a law that makes it mandatory for people to wear the dhoti and sari in public places. Wouldn’t there be a national outcry? Even the more-sanskari-than-thou Alok Nath may think twice about endorsing the move as it’s an open transgression of personal freedom.

A city name change enacted via government diktat is akin to the enforced costume makeover. The only difference being, there won’t be a pipsqueak of protest as nobody really loses sleep over place names in India.

Yes, there might be the odd hot headed tweet about how uncool Bengaluru is or how Chikkamagaluru is a worthy candidate for a spelling bee contest but the fact remains that no editorials will be written, no celebrity will speak out, no ‘kiss of love’ protests will be staged, as the issue is largely perceived to be a non-issue.

My gripe with the rechristening is not on whether Mysore should be called Mysuru. It’s about the singular lack of discussion and public involvement before the decision was made.

In these times when cities are seen as brands, a name change should only be effected after considerable debate among all stake holders. I mean, what’s the idea of renaming Madras as ‘Chennai’ when Madras High Court, University of Madras and Madras Stock Exchange decide to retain their original names?

The same process is going to play out in Bengaluru. Bangalore University, is in all likelihood, going to retain its name. Wikipedia, Lonely Planet and zillions of outsiders are still going to refer to it as Bangalore. So why waste billions of rupees in repainting road signs, rewriting maps and reprinting stationery all for the sake of puffing up cultural pride, 67 years after independence?

A place name change is kosher, only if backed by a groundswell of popular support. Here we can learn from processes put in place by several American states and municipalities.

A name change form is available for download at the government website. Those in favour have to mobilise 51% support in their area. Then the motion is presented to a government body which in turn forwards this to a committee that holds a public hearing listening to all the pros and cons before sticking its neck out for the proposal. Sadly none of this was followed in Bengaluru and Mysuru. All that was achieved was, we’ve been short changed in the guise of a name change.