Friday, December 30, 2016

Best Names of 2016

I’ve always wondered why there’s no Nobel Prize for Naming or an Oscar for outstanding nomenclature. Surely in a universe with more than a billion names, we need to ensure the good ones get celebrated, right? That’s why I created the Rumpies.

‘Rumpies’ is a nod to Rumpelstiltskin, the most unusual name of a fairy tale goblin legendary for turning straw into gold. After scouring through thousands of names across multiple categories, I’ve whimsically picked the winsome candidates worthy of a Rumpy by using my subjectively objective judgement. If you agree with my choice, applaud. If you disagree, you still have no choice but to applaud.

My first Rumpy is for the Best English Movie Title. I almost awarded it to the war comedy ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ for clever usage of the NATO phonetic alphabet to convey the ‘WTF’ feeling. But then I changed my mind in favour of the Clint Eastwood biographical drama ‘Sully’. Why ‘Sully’ you may ask? Well, the film is about Captain Sullenberger aka ‘Sully’ and a federal invesigation that threatens to tarnish his heroic reputation. The subtle use of wordplay to capture the plot, was quite ingenious, in my view.

Among the Hindi movies, two titles caught my fancy: the zen koanish ‘Buddha in a Traffic Jam’ and Balki’s ‘Ki & Ka’. My final vote was for ‘Ki & Ka’ as it felt very refreshing to the ear, given it was woven around the same old plot about a Ladka and a Ladki.

Siddharth starrer ‘Jil Jung Juk’ was the clear winner in Tamil. It’s derived from an old Vadivel dialogue that classifies the world into three kinds: Jil (the good), Jung (the average) and Juk (the unworthy). To me, ‘Jil Jung Juk’ felt funky, intriguing and very original. Talking of intrigue, the mallu movie title that got me all excited was ‘Amoeba’, a film that revolves around the fear of endosulfan poisoning. In Telugu, it was ‘Ism’, the Kalyan Ram flick about a protagonist who practises good journalism.

The Best Book Title, by a mile, was the very poetic memoir ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi. My Rumpy for the ‘Best New Band Name’ went to ‘Kississippi’, the Indie folk duo from Pennsylavnia. The Best Baby Name was Saifeena’s ‘Taimur’ for starting a whole new conversation on history. And the Best Indian Brand Name was ‘Jio’ for being a mirror image of Oil, the real money spinner for Reliance. There are many more that deserve recognition. We’ll reserve it for the happy new year.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Sound of Music

Carnatic music is like the Rubik’s cube. Only a few practitioners of the art are able to ‘get it’. The rest of us gyana soonyams (dimwits) don’t have a clue as to what permutation or combination of the sapta swaras can make or unmake a raga.

Since the kutcheri season is unfolding, I thought it’s just the right time to get ourselves a quick primer on ragas so we won’t have that vacuous Rahul Gandhi smile whenever anyone choses to embarrass us by launching into a discussion on Harikambhoji or Hanumatodi.

Let’s begin with ragas. Literally, they mean ‘colours’ or ‘hues of emotion’ the mind experiences when you listen to harmonies. While mathematically there can be 5040 fundamental ragas, the masters of the craft have identified 72 melakarta ragas (parent melodies). Within these, there can be potentially 26,864 janya ragas (offshoot melodies). Around 950 janya ragas have been discovered, till date.

Saint Tyagaraja was considered a super dude, because he composed songs in 212 ragas and invented 66 new ones. In stark comparison, the maestro of our age Illayaraja has one raga to his credit – Rajalahari; the genius Balamurali Krishna has 18 in his kitty - including one dedicated to our former CM (Jaya Jaya Lalithe); and Pandit Ravi Shankar has an incredible 30.

Like the periodic table that follows a numerical order, the melakarta ragas have been named following the Katapayadi nomenclature that assigns letters to numerals. For example, the 1 st , 11 th , 21 st , and 31 st raga can start with one of the following letters: K, T, P, Y. Incidentally, they’ve been named Kanakangi, Kokilapriya, Kiravani and Yagyapriya. Kiravani, by the way, decodes to ‘voice of the parrot’. And is also the name of a Telugu music composer. Kokilapriya (cuckoo), Rasali (eagle), Hamswadhwani (Swan) and Chakravakam (Brahmany Duck), are the other bird themed ragas.

Since composers were often inspired by religious devotion, many ragas are open tributes to gods. Kharaharpriya (one who defeated demon Khara) and Gowri Manohari (one who stole the heart of Parvati) are Shiva-centric. Shanmukapriya is an ode to Muruga. Raghupriya and Ramapriya are inspired by Lord Rama. Varunapriya and Amritavarshini are paeans to the rain god.

I suspect that many Tamil actresses have been named after ragas. Bhanupriya, Manorama, Revati and Madhavi come to mind. At least, director K. Balachander, had a penchant for naming his lead characters so. One gathers that he tried that trick in Apoorva Ragangal, Sindhu Bhairavi and tele-serial Sahana. Hope that gave you enough to chew on when you gorge on the sabha sappadu, this season!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Elements of Surprise

Gold is not the most expensive substance in this world. Sorry, it ain’t platinum either. Nor diamond. If you had cared to look beyond the test tubes in your chemistry lab, you’d know by now that it’s Californium. The element number 98 apparently costs $27 million per gram. But those who dug out this figure perhaps didn’t know that our planet produces just half a gram of the substance in a whole year. That’s why it costs a bomb!

Talking of elements, you must have read by now that we have four new entrants into the periodic table: Nihonium (Nihon translates to Japan), Moscovium (a nod to Moscow), Tennessine (after Tennessee), and Oganassian (homage to scientist Yuri Ogansasian). If you’re wondering when we’ll have a Delhium or Bangalorium, I’ll make your day by revealing that at least two chemical elements owe their names to Sanskrit. They are ‘Beryllium’ (from the green gem Vaidurya) and Sulphur (from Sanskrit word ‘shulbari’ meaning ‘copper’s enemy’). Bet you didn’t know that.

Actually, there’s a lot they didn’t teach us in the classroom. For example, I never knew Copper is the only element that’s naturally anti-bacterial. May be that’s why our forefathers stored water in copper jars. Another thing I didn’t know is, J and Q are the only letters missing from the periodic table.

Had our teachers got to the root of element names, we’d have probably shown as much interest as Dmitri Mendeleev and remembered the entire thingy. Anyways, it’s never too late to make a start.

To my knowledge, there are 10 elements named after places of origin. Copper, for example, is derived from Cyprus, and Scandium from Scandinavia. Nine, are an ode to heavenly bodies – Helium (Sun), Selenium (Moon), Mercury. Tellurium (Earth), Uranium (Uranus), Neptunium (Neptune), Plutonium (Pluto), Palladium (Pallas) and Cerium (Ceres). Eight get their appellations from famous scientists – Einsteinium, Bohrium, Fermium, Roentgenium, Copernicium Curium, Rutherfordium, and Nobelium.

Mythical characters have had their share too: Tantalum (Tantalus), Vanadium (Vanadis, Norse goddess of beauty), Thorium (Thor) and Titanium (Titans). Colours also had their say: Indicum (Indigo), Iodine (Violet), Rhodium (Rose) & Zirconium (Gold).

Among the quirkiest ones is Gallium. It’s a pun on the surname of the discoverer Paul Emil Lecoq. Le Coq is French for the ‘Rooster’ which happens to be ‘Gallus’ in Latin. Also his homeland was France (referred to as ‘Gallia’ by the Romans). Hope that passed your litmus test of news you can use!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Think Pig

One of Gabbar Singh’s favourite expletives was ‘suar ke bacche’ (progeny of swine). Logically speaking, it should have never gained traction as a filthy cuss word as the pig is supposedly, a very clean animal.

They say, even a new-born piglet, will leave its nest to go to a makeshift toilet nearby within hours of birth, unlike us humans who created an entire diaper industry with our propensity to wet our pants at unannounced hours.

Sadly, despite a wealth of information available to the contrary, the pig is a much slandered beast. In the sixties and seventies, feminists labelled men who regarded women as an inferior species as ‘male chauvinistic pigs’. Thankfully, the P in MCP was not an allusion to the hoofed mammal with a flat snout. It was in fact a derogatory British slang for ‘policemen or authoritarian men’.

‘Lazy pig’ is another myth that deserves to be busted. Pigs are caged or kept in a pen with other pigs. They have no option but to lie around in the little space they’re provided. If they had the privileges of a solo pet, they’ll be as adorable and active as dogs because pigs are supposed to have an IQ of a 3-year-old and they can run a mile in just about 7 minutes!

Wallowing in the mud is often cited as one more reason for the negative perception of the swine. But the poor thing has no say in the matter as it doesn’t have sweat glands. To control its temperature, the pig has to spend a lot of time in shallow murky waters.

So dirty, stupid, fat and ugly, they are not. In fact, the billion odd pigs on the planet have up to 185 uses ranging from the production of insulin to giving the shampoo its pearl-like appearance. Apart from a famous guest appearance on your food plate as bacon, pork, or ham, the pig has also come in handy in over 60,000 human heart transplants worldwide.

Although the piggy bank is the most adorable advertisement for the sus scrofa domesticus, the animal has no connection whatsoever with the savings habit. There’s a nice story behind its deployment. And it concerns an orange-coloured clay called ‘pygg’.

During the Middle Ages, metal was very expensive. Therefore money was stored in clay pots made from ‘pygg’. The Europeans referred to them as ‘pygg pots’. With time, when English craftsmen got instructions from their masters for replication of the pygg pot, they took it literally and crafted the first ever piggy bank. Now that you’ve hogged on a whole lot of porcine stuff, how about adopting one as a pet?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Team of Oddballs

Everyone’s been so blinded by the inclusion of four British Asians (Moen Ali, Haseeb Hameed, Adil Rashid and Zafar Ansari) into the English test team, that they’ve missed one little gem.

Among the other members of the squad is a six foot medium pacer and batsman by the name Jacob Timothy Ball. Jake has an elder brother – Jonathan Joseph Ball. He is an off-spinner who plays for Nottinghamshire. Together they are the Balls of England.

If that tickled you, you must savour some of the quirkiest names in the pommie cricketing history. My first exhibit is a left-arm bowler named Edward William Bastard. Apparently, one critic who thought he was undeserving to play for Oxford University, may have coined the term ‘Lucky Bastard’. Another fascinating county cricketer is Christopher Beech. Rumour has it that whenever he notches a poor score for his team Staffordshire, his mates refer to him as ‘Son of a Beech’. Harry Butt had similar problems. He was the wicketkeeper for Sussex for nearly 20 years. A dropped catch or missed stumping made him the Butt of all ridicule.

One can only blame the mockery on the surname. Charles Allcock, the right hand batsman who donned the jersey of Cambridge University in the 1880s, would have certainly vouched for it. When he was going through a lean patch, he must have been introduced as ‘Meet Charles. He’s all cock’.

Two test players of yore, Leslie Gay and Arthur Fagg, would have faced a lot of ribbing had they been born in our times. I can imagine a Tony Greig screaming, ‘Got it, got it, Faggot it!’ It would have been even more difficult to fill the large shoes of elegant batsman Joe Hardstaff (played from 1930 to 1955). His captains couldn’t have resisted the urge to slip in a cheeky ‘Hard on or not?’ query during team selection meetings.

Cheesy double entendres aside, for every Ryan Sidebottom, there’s a family friendly name like Christopher Batchelor. But I’ve always wondered if Batchelor only dealt in singles.

A popular anecdote among cricket buffs concerns a county game between Kent and Durham in 2007. The bowler was Graham Onions and the batsman Simon Cook. When Cook nicked one to the keeper, the scoreboard read: Cook c Mustard b Onions. One could have easily mistaken that for a MasterChef moment. Let me sign off with a delightful piece of trivia. Charles Marriott and Malcolm Hilton have played tests for England. With a Marriott and Hilton, you can’t get more five star, can you?

Thursday, November 17, 2016

On The Money

The currency bomb has been dropped. And we can’t stop talking about it. The believers seem to think that the Darth Vaders of black money have been caught with their masks down and the giant money laundering machine has been short circuited. While the doubters view it as an apocalyptic event engineered by Narendra Bin Thuglaq that has unleashed more pain than a tsunami, earthquake or famine.

Obviously the truth lies somewhere in between. We’ll know the real results not in 50 days, but may be in 50 weeks when people on both sides grow a brain and see things as they are. Till then, all we can do is to queue up for change and improve our knowledge of money. A baby step in that direction is to figure out why a rupee is called a rupee and a dollar, a dollar.

A good way to make a start is by browsing dusty history books and musty dictionaries. From what little I’ve gathered, the original precious metal in which the currency was minted, played a big role in the naming.

When the great Afghan Sher Shah Suri lorded over Delhi between 1540 and 1545 AD, he used three metals to serve as instruments of exchange. The Gold coins were called ‘Mohur’, the Silver coins were the ‘Rupiya’ and the Copper ones were deemed as ‘Dam’. Incidentally, the phrase ‘I don’t give a damn’ may have its roots in the tiny copper coin. For those who know their languages, Rupiya is derived from ‘Raupya’, the Sanskrit word for ‘Silver’ and Mohar in Persian means ‘seal’.

Even the Dollar’s story has a silver lining. It all began in 1520, when Bohemia minted coins from silver mined in St. Joachim’s Valley or ‘Joachimsthal’. The coins were referred to as Joachimsthaler or ‘thaler’ for short. With passage of time, the ‘thaler’ became the ‘dollar’. Another currency with a silver connection is the Russian rouble. ‘Rouble’ literally means ‘to chop’ and it’s probably derived from the practice of chopping silver bars to create transactable money.

The moolah from some other countries have interesting etymologies: the Polish zloty translates to ‘golden’; the Japanese yen is from the Chinese ‘yuan’ which implies ‘round object’; the Arabic ‘riyal’ is from the Spanish word for ‘royal’; the Chinese renminbi decodes to ‘people’s currency’; the Scandinavian krone is from the Latin ‘Corona’ (crown); and the euro (the short form of Europe) was coined by a Belgian named Germain Pirlot in 1995. That was my two cents on money. Hope you’ll spend it wisely.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Back to the roots.

In a nation that has innumerable conversations over trifling matters such as Arnab’s noisy exit and the return of ‘Koffee with Karan’, it helps to keep injecting more trivial topics for discussion just to keep the chattering classes busy.

So I’d like to formally table the need for toponymic surnames to the grand conveyor belt of inane national confabulations. Now, ‘Toponymic surnames’ may sound like a yawn-worthy dissertation topic but it’s actually far more interesting than you think. Simply put, these are last names derived from place names.

To give you a lightning speed crash course, let’s examine the name Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach, as you know, is one of the greatest composers of classical music. His surname literally means ‘someone who lives by a stream’. Next, let’s put Quentin Tarantino under the microscope. Tarantino is an indication that Quentin’s forefathers might have been from Taranto, a city in South East Italy. Charles Lindbergh is another name worth exploring. Lindbergh, was the first person to do a transatlantic flight all by himself. His last name is European in origin. If one breaks it down, Lind in Swedish, is ‘lime’ and ‘Bergh’ is ‘mountain’. It’s a cue that he draws his roots from an area with a lime mountain.

That in a nutshell is a toponymic surname. Leonardo DiCaprio has it. So do Sachin Tendulkar, Jane Fonda and Bob Marley. The beauty of it is that it doesn’t overtly give the ears any inkling of gender. Nor does it drop a hint of the class or caste. Which is precisely why, I think it’ll make a fab master template for India.

For long, we’ve been stuck with surnames that have a caste overtone. A ‘Chaturvedi’ is an in-your-face assertion of punditry. While a ‘Chamar’ is a harsh daily reminder of social inequity. Given what we’ve gone through for centuries, it’s time to outgrow the narrow confines defined by surnames.

And it’s time we asked as to why an Agarwal should be perceived as a Bania all his life? Why must an Iyer always be viewed through the prism of his sacred thread? Isn’t there a way we could arrive at a surname without any social baggage and yet be rooted to our culture?

Place-based surnames offer that freedom. Some liberal poets discovered this secret way before us. That’s why you have a Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sahir Ludhianvi, Shakeel Badayuni and a Hasrat Jaipuri. If you wish to carry on their tradition, perhaps you should start with your hometown and add it as your appellation.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Mum's the word

October 29th was a red letter day for Indian sport. That was the day, when Mahendra Singh Devaki, Virat Saroj, Rohit Purnima, Ajinkya Sujata. Amit Chandrakala and six other mamma’s boys teamed up to beat New Zealand in a series tilting victory.

The ODI stunt to promote the ‘nayi soch’ theme of Star Plus, may have been just that - a stunt. But the message it sent out to our suffocatingly patriarchal society was earth shattering. Because for long the ‘father’s name’ has been a burdensome thing that many people have been forced to carry all their lives as an adjunct surname or a vestigial initial.

Ask the children of single mothers and they will tell you how they are made to squirm at schools and colleges for not having a masculine sounding surname. ‘Why no father’s name?’ and ‘What, no father-ra?’ are some thoughtless questions that are routinely flung, like red hot daggers poked into a suppurating wound.

I’ve often wondered why, in families where dads are wastrels and moms wear the pants, children should not proudly proclaim that they are the fruit of their mother’s labour. My respect from Sanjay Leela Bhansali went up manifold when I learned that his middle name is a tribute to his mom who brought him up almost single-handedly after his dad passed away.

Which is why it was truly heartening when I read a news item that several Dalits in Gujarat were dropping their caste-laden surnames and replacing them with their mother’s name. Kaushik Parmar, for instance, has now become Kaushik Jamnaben Babubhai. What an elegant solution to an age-old curse!

Internationally, there have been many celebrities who have opted for a matronymic nomenclature. Zorro actor Antonio Banderas was born Jose Antonio Dominguez Banderas. He preferred to drop his patronymic surname for his mother’s maiden name.

British musician Eric Clapton should have logically been Eric Fryer but he chose to model himself after his mom Patricia Molly Clapton. Even the Kasparov in Gary Kasparov is a Russian variation of Gasparyan, his Armenian mom’s maiden name.

Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, perhaps put it best, on why he chose his mother’s Italian surname, “Can you imagine me calling myself Ruiz? Pablo Ruiz?” That’s entirely the point. Sometimes mom’s works best.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Playing With Fire

Diwali is round the corner. And pity, no one knows about John Walker. He’s the modern day Prometheus who invented the first-ever friction match. John retailed it under the awful name ‘Sulphurata-Hyper-Oxygenata-Frict’. Thankfully, he rechristened it soon as ‘Friction Lights’. Rest is history. Or let’s say chemistry.

The fact remains is that fire-themed names have always given a leg-up to anyone who’s chosen to blaze a new trail. When Amazon was researching the creation of an e-reader, they gave it the code name ‘Fiona’. But when they took professional help from branding consultant Michael Cronan, he suggested ‘Kindle’ as books have a tendency to set alight the innate curiosity. Kindle, by the way, is the Nordic root word for ‘candle’. And today, it earns billions of dollars.

Autodesk, the giant software company behind Maya, was one of the earliest to realise the branding potential of fire. They named their entire entertainment suite using terms associated with pyrotechnics. The compositing and visual effects applications were assigned the appellations ‘Flame’, ‘Flint’, ‘Smoke’ and ‘Inferno’. A module of Flame meant for creative assistants was termed as ‘Flare’. And the color grading software was labelled ‘Lustre’. All of these are mightily famous among movie editors and post production specialists.

Cut to India. When the DRDO was in the process developing a comprehensive range of missiles, they came up with five types of missiles: Agni, Prithvi, Aakash, Nag and Trishul. Have you ever wondered why, Agni is a household name while others are not? The reason is clear: Agni lit up a match inside us and burned bright in our mindscape. May be that’s why Abdul Kalam wrote a book titled ‘Ignited Minds’.

Not just firebrands, even fiery personal names are stickier. Take the surname ‘Brando’ as an example. Half the swag of Marlon Brando comes from Brando. And it happens to mean ‘torch of flame or beacon’. Same with badminton player Jwala Gutta. She’s not in the same league as Sindhu or Saina, but somehow her name is unforgettable. That power comes from ‘Jwala’ (‘intense flame).

‘Tinder’ is the one new age app that has tapped the virtues of fire to inflame the romantic spark. Curiously, the founders originally picked ‘Matchbox’and dropped it for something less explicit. In the end, their decision to bet on a word that meant ‘flammable material used for lighting a fire’ proved to be right. And their app has spread like wildfire.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Mad Taste of Madras

I have a simple test for measuring the IQ of a city. Just put all its restaurants under the microscope and evaluate them for evidence of wit. Wackier the names, smarter the city. Given this premise, one must admit that Chennai is way superior to its peers in the sheer cleverness of its spread.

OCD is a starter with which, I’d like to make my case. It’s the name of a little bakery in Shenoy Nagar. In case, you didn’t get it, it’s meant for people with the ‘Oreo Compulsive Disorder’. Cut to ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ in RA Puram. It’s a cool-sounding lounge bar inspired by the children’s classic written by Margery Williams about a stuffed rabbit that yearns to get real.

Then there’s ‘Craveyard Café’ at Adyar showcasing its deadly dishes with a touch of dark humour. ‘Wrapsody’, the joint on ECR that specialises in wraps, is as good with its wordplay. ‘Fusilli Reasons’, the pasta place at Kilpauk, however tops the punster’s charts, by giving you a whimsy excuse for trying their food.

‘Jonah’s Bistro’, the brainchild of entrepreneur Sam Paul ostensibly named after his son Jonah, has rolled out a series of restaurants that feel like adventure movie titles. ‘Jonah’s goes to Japan’, ‘Jonah’s meets Chef Willi’, ‘Jonah’s goes to West Coast’, and 'Jonah’s goes Fishing’ are some of his finely christened culinary sequels.

Among the ones that project an authentic aura is ‘Batlivala & Khanaboy’, a Parsi restaurant floated by a Non-Parsi. The acoustics of B&K conjure up the vision of a collaborative venture between two mad bawas.

Even celebrity restaurants here have a touch of imagination. ‘God-ka by Simran’ on ECR is a telling example. Instead of riding solely on her brand equity, she chose a fusion name. Godka is what one gets by mixing Gin and Vodka. Also God-ka is a Hinglish way of implying a divine taste.

The self-deprecatory ‘I Fake’ for an ‘almost authentic’ restaurant; the very sixties ‘Love Peace Karma’ for a hookah lounge; the in-your-face ‘Eggsclusive’ for a roadside eatery; the exotic ‘Bolizza’ for a snackery peddling the South Indian Boli; the catchy ‘Biri Biri’ for a biriyani joint; and the spoonerism ‘Bake My Day’, just go to prove that when it comes to ingenuity, Madras takes the cake.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Looking Good on Paper

One of the prerequisites for being an academic is you have to look and sound very academic. Which is why you’ll rarely spot Elvis Presley sideburns or a Frank Zappa style soul patch among research scholars. Forget the nerdy dress sense, even the language has to be unapologetically abstruse. May be that’s why research papers are cold, clinical, and as unreadable as an engineering manual.

The idea behind penning papers like ‘Metagenomic insights into the pathogenome of cellulosimicrobium cellulans’ is the equivalent of sporting a t-shirt that reads, ‘If you didn’t get my PhD dissertation title, then you’re not PhD enough’.

Given the peer pressure to portray oneself as ‘lab-coatish’, it takes a brave heart to strike a discordant note and make science, very unscientific. Thankfully for every boring scholar, there’s a Feynman somewhere trying to break the mould and simplifying things.

Recently, I stumbled upon a stash of dissertations with titles that made me want to read them. On top of the list is ‘Ramanujan’s association with radicals in India’. It almost feels like a historical thriller about mathematicians and Naxalites. On the contrary, it’s an in depth study of Ramanujan’s work in the field of radicals or square root numbers!

Another one that fascinated me was the ‘Alpher-Bethe-Gamow’ paper on the origin of chemical elements. Doesn’t that sound like Alpha, Beta, and Gamma to you? Apparently, Alpher is the author of the thesis. George Gamow, the famed cosmologist was his guide. And they added Hans Bethe, the nuclear physicist’s name, almost whimsically, just to add some punch to the title.

Juan Bicarregui’s ‘Do Not Read This’ is equally compelling. It taps into the child in you and urges you to take a sneak peek without explicitly asking you to do so. Bailey and Borwein were even more brilliant. They put their key finding as the header: 'The 40 billionth binary digit of Pi is 1'. Anyone who reads it will gasp, ‘How could they know that without a computer?’ and will definitely want to explore their algorithm.

Ryter, Morse & Choi got it spot-on when they put out their findings on the similarities between Carbon Monoxide and Nitrous Oxide. They chose to play on Star Trek and worded their work as 'Carbon Monoxide: To boldly go where NO has gone before'. That level of wit can lift the clouds of dullness from any vapid verbiage masquerading as research.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Land of Legends

Dravid and Kumble are not the only legends associated with Karnataka. Every city in the state is a tale wrapped in a yarn inside an anecdote.

Take Udupi, to know how imaginative things can get. Udupi is said to have been derived from the Sanskrit words Udu and Pa, which mean ‘lord of the stars’. This is an allusion to a mythical story that involves the moon and his 27 wives. Apparently, Daksha, the father of the 27 nakshatras, was cut up with the moon for some reason and he cursed his son-in-law that his light would dim with time. When it did, the petrified moon and his cohort of wives prayed to Lord Shiva to prevent him from turning into a dimwit. Shiva predictably answered his prayers and restored his glorious shimmer. Hence, the name Udupi, as a nod to Lord Shiva.

Bidar, the hill-top city in North East Karnataka, has an equally mythical origin. They say Bidar is named after Vidura, the wise uncle of the Pandavas and Kauravas, probably because he was rumoured to have settled down here.

Mangalore is named after a Malabar princess Premaladevi who had renounced her kingdom after becoming a disciple of Swami Matsyendranath. Apparently, the saint rechristened her as Mangaladevi. She died of illness in an area that eventually became Managaldevi temple. The temple lent its name to Mangalore.

Chikkamagaloru has a little tale associated with its origin. They say the town was given as a dowry to the youngest daughter of Rukmangada, the chief of Sakharayapattana. To commemorate the gifting, ‘younger daughter town’ was translated into Kannada as ‘Chikkamaga uru’.

Mysuru has the most popular funnecdote. And it’s linked to the buffalo-monster Mahishasur. Mahishasur had all the boons from the gods and was virtually unchallengeable. Being conceited, he decided to take on the divine powers. Brahma, Vishnu & Shiva reincarnated themselves as Durga or Chamundeswari and slayed the demon. The Chamundi hills, East of Mysore, is a tribute to the goddess. While the city itself is called the abode of Mahisha.

Adding to the list of colourful etymologies is Kolar. It’s derived from Kolahalapura (Kannada for ‘violent city’). Kolahalapura was the battleground for some famous wars between the Chalukyas and the Cholas. To think that a war zone has transmogrified into a veritable gold mine is truly legendary stuff.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Train to Pakistan

If irony had a capital, it would be in Islamabad. Because when Pakistan was born it was touted as the ‘land of the pure’ based on the premise that it had always been a race different from the ‘land of the Hindus’.

The first crack on the purity hypothesis appears when you dissect the name Pakistan. The Persian suffix ‘-istan’ is a derivative of Sanskrit word ‘sthan’ meaning ‘place’. I wonder why the puritans didn’t think of this glaring contradiction when they opted for Pakistan.

A simple train journey to Pakistan will reveal more ironies. Lahore, the second largest metropolis, literally means ‘Fort of Loh’. And surprise of surprises, Loh turns out to be none other than Lava, the son of Rama! What’s interesting is the city of Kasur was supposed to have been founded by Kusha, the brother of Lava.

The Ramayana connection doesn’t end there. Pushkal, the son of Bharata, laid the foundation for an ancient settlement called ‘Pushkalavati’ which later became Pushpapura (the city of flowers) and finally morphed into Peshawar, when Emperor Akbar named it so.

Even Multan, the fifth populous city, has a Sanskrit origin. Historians say it was derived from ‘Moolasthan’, the name of a sun temple of yore. Sialkot, the home of cricketers Imran Tahir and Mohammad Asif, has Indic roots too. The city was founded by Raja Salivahana. And is called the ‘Fort of Sial’. Sial, happens to be the gotra of the Jat clan that lorded over the city.

The ultimate demolisher of the purity myth of Pakistan are its rivers. Fortunately, nearly all of them retain the pristine nature of their original names. The 774 kilometers long Jhelum is derived from ‘jal’ and ‘haima’ (Sanskrit for water & snow) and not ja-e-alam (place of flag) as some would like us to believe. Chenab, one of the ‘Western Rivers’ over which Pakistan has control, owes it etymology to ‘Chand’ and ‘ab’ or the Sanskrit ‘Chanda’ and ‘ap’ which means ‘moon river’. The Swat River that gives its name to the Swat Valley, now famed as Malala Yousufzai’s hometown, is a contraction of the Sanskrit ‘Suvastu’ (crystal clear).

Clearly, what’s coming through is like all civilisations, Pakistan is another melting pot of shared histories. The only difference though is that the country is in a state of complete denial. Perhaps, waging a proxy war on ignorance should be Priority No.1 for Nawaz Sharif.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Men in Skirts

There’s something very likable about Scotland. It’s the only country in the world to have the Unicorn as the national animal. That’s today’s equivalent of having Hobbes of ‘Calvin & Hobbes’ as the patriotic mascot. How cool is that!

Another fascinating aspect is that it’s got the highest proportion of red heads – 1 in 7 people! To use an Economist turn of phrase, Scotland is indeed a nation of ‘well-red’ people. The most charming aspect, however, is the kilts or the pleated skirts that Scottish men wear with total nonchalance. It was first tailored in the 1720s by a businessman named Thomas Rawlinson to ensure ease of work during logging, charcoal manufacture and iron smelting. To cut a short story, shorter, the kilt was an ergonomic innovation created to skirt cumbersome issues.

Scottish surnames is one more domain that’s intriguing. Since Scotland happens to be a patronymic society, people there have a marked tendency to christen their child after the dad. Which is why, David’s boy is Davidson, Arthur’s descendant is MacArthur, and an offspring of Ralph is Rowling. Likewise, Alexander’s daughter is called Alexdaughter, and the Mac prefix for women is Nic. So if McDonald is the son of Donald, the daughter would be named as NcDonald.

Analysis of some famous surnames, would give you a better picture of Scottish nomenclature. In many cases, occupation of the forefather cast a long shadow on name selection. For example: Webster would mean a weaver; Baxter would allude to a baker; Dempster would be a judge; Gillespie, the servant of a bishop; Fletcher, someone who makes and sells arrows; Ruskin, a tanner; Jardine, a gardener; Miller, Hunter, and Smith were fairly self-explanatory.

Racial origin mattered sometimes. Fleming means someone with roots in the Flemish region of Belgium. Galbraith is indicative of people who lived in Scotland before the arrival of the Gaels. Scott would mean true blue Scots, and French cued folks from France. Places of ancestral settlement often gave rise to surnames. To illustrate the point, those who were near the mouth of River Crombie were the Abercrombies. And those near the River Roe were the Monroes. Once in a while, nicknames masqueraded as the cognomen. Reid (red hair), Bain (white hair), Bowie (yellow hair), Campbell (crooked mouth), and Milligan (bald) are eloquent cases in point.

Before we go Scot-free, let’s end our excursion to the highlands by understanding the etymology of Scotland. It seems Scotia was the Roman name of Ireland. And when a bunch of ‘Scoti’ or Irish renegades dropped anchor, the land echoed with the drone of a hundred pipers!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Cut It Out

It takes a lot to flummox Superman. But in 1967, a smallish, mischievous looking bloke from the fifth dimension got the better of Superman just by introducing himself. His name was Mxyzptlk. Bereft of vowels, our superhero found the task of pronunciation, a head-scratcher. He went: “Mr. Mixie, what?” He just couldn’t figure out that it was Mister MixyZipitlik.

Many rock fans experienced a similar moment of weirdness in the early seventies when they first encountered an album from ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd’, the first band to use no vowels in their name. The presence of the quasi-vowel ‘y’ made it a little easier. Still the name evoked a lot of curiosity. The band had to issue a clarification that Lynyrd Skynyrd was a mock tribute to their teacher Leonard Skinner, who with his strict policy against long hair, drove their lead guitarist to drop out of school.

The boy band NSYNC took the ‘no vowel movement’ one step further and capitalised their letters in 1995, thereby triggering off an avalanche of ugliness. Musicians with little talent decided that the best way to stand out was to create a disemvoweled name.

The result is, now we’re stuck with hundreds of band names that look straight out of the rack of a scrabble player burdened with consonants. Some samplers would give you an idea of how lousy things have got. There’s this Virginia-based Hip Hop band called ‘RDGLDGRN’. If you could spot the three colours, wait till you try and decode ‘LVTHN’, a black metal band paying an ode to ‘leviathan’, the sea monster referenced in the Old Testament. Then there’s NRCSSST, the Lithuanian metal band with a self-obsession so huge, they’ve made it their name.

The one that’s more puzzling than an abstract cubist painting is ‘SHXCXCHCXSH’. Nobody knows how to address this Swedish band that specialises in putting out techno tracks with titles like ‘RRRRGRRGRRR’, ‘STRGTHS’, ‘WHTLGHT’, ‘RSRRCTN’ and believe it or not, ‘SsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSs’.

Even brands have tried to ride the wave. In 2001, Reebok announced that it was starting a new line called ‘Rbk’. British cycling champion Mark Cavendish launched ‘CVNDSH’ in 2013 with the cheeky punch line ‘Fst as Fck’! In my humble view, flushing out the ‘A, E, I, O, U’ from a name is as crappy as vowel movements.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

There's A Word For That

Consider this: You’re flying an international airline, full of foreigners. There are only two Tamilians on the plane. You and one more guy seated in the business class. As you try and catch a wink, you hear a kerfuffle. The other Tamilian is trying to take lurid pictures of the airhostess and she’s creating a ruckus about it.

Although you’re no way related to him, being a Tam, it’s but natural to feel utterly embarrassed by his actions, right? There’s a German word for this vicarious sense of shame. It’s called ‘Fremdschamen’.

There are many lovely words like this that have somehow remained cloaked by our collective ignorance. It’s time we sought them out like a heat seeking missile.

‘Sillage’ is one such beauty. It’s the trail of fragrance that lingers in the air after someone has passed you by. Haven’t you felt the sillage or at least spotted it in ads? Another potent term is the ‘Baader-Meinhoff Phenomenon’. It’s the uncanny ability of something new that you’ve learnt, to pop up everywhere, all of a sudden.

I’ve personally experienced this when I first learnt about the ’27 Club’. If you’re not familiar with it, ’27 Club’ is the belief that some of the most talented musicians die at 27. The death of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison & Kurt Cobain fuelled the urban legend. The year I learnt about the club, singer Amy Winehouse eerily died of alcohol poisoning at the unripe age of 27! Talk about nasty coincidences.

‘Pareidolia’ is one more phenomenon you’ll fall in love with. It’s the tendency to see faces in the unlikeliest of places and objects. People who see Ganesha in a tree, Jesus on a toast, Buddha in a cloud, and Chandamama on the moon are the type who’ll relate with it.

Then there is ‘Nominative Determinism’ which is a complicated way of stating the hypothesis that people tend to gravitate towards professions that fit their surnames. Usain Bolt, William Wordsworth and Tiger Woods are famous examples.

My personal favourite though is ‘Mondegreen’. It’s the propensity to misinterpret lyrics due to mishearing. Mondegreen is simply put singing ‘Aap jaisa koi mere zidagi me aaye toh baat ban jaye’ as ‘baap ban jaye’. Curiously, author Sylvia Wright coined it when she misheard a line in a Scottish ballad. ‘Laid him on the green’ felt like ‘Lady Mondegreen’ to her ears!

I’ll sign off with one something you may not know. What do you call the infinity symbol? ‘Lemniscate’. That’s the good word!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Muchas Gracias

Geographically speaking, Spain is about 7900 kilometres away from India. But culturally speaking, they’re much, much closer as we owe nearly everything we do to the Spanish. Trust me, I am not exaggerating.

The guitar we strum; the cigarette we smoke; the hot chocolate we drink; the radio we tune into; the wheelchair your granddad uses; the glass mirror you peer into; the foosball you play; the calculator you punch into; the lollipop your kid craves for; the eye glasses you so depend upon; the humble mop your maid uses; the stapler your office cannot do without; the pocket knife you need during travels; even the first telescope, the first space suit and the first planetarium were all invented by Spaniards.

And I am just getting started. Kid you not. If we paid a dollar for everything we owe Spain, they’d probably be the richest country in the world. Allow me to elaborate.

Tungsten, the metal used in mobile phones, circuit boards, rock drills, planes, cars and trains, was discovered by the Elhuyar brothers in 1783. Platinum, the precious metal behind jewellery, catalytic converters, pacemakers and magnets, is yet again a contribution of Spanish ingenuity.

Linguistically speaking, the Hispanic species has made the English language richer by at least 150 words. Alligator (‘the lizard’), Mosquito (‘little fly’), Breeze (‘cold northeast wind’), Tornado (‘thunderstorm’), Vigilante (‘watchman’), Bonanza (‘prosperity’), Cafeteria (‘coffee store’), Peon (‘labourer’), Savvy (‘wise’), Vanilla (‘little pod’) and Zorro (‘fox’) are a few surprising loanwords you’ll never attribute to Spain.

Three of the foodie universe favourites – Tacos, Nachos, and Burritos – have their roots to people or things from the land of the Tomatino festival. ‘Nachos’ is named after Ignacio Anaya, a Mexican restaurateur who cut tortillas into triangles, fried and served them with shredded cheese and jalapeno peppers when he couldn’t locate his cook to serve some American military officers. ‘Tacos’ is derived from an old custom of miners to wrap paper around gunpowder to use as explosive charges. If you really think the Mexican dish involves the same process of rolling a tortilla around a filling. ‘Burrito’ literally means ‘little donkey’ in Spanish. The cylindrical shape of the dish probably reminded people of the packs that donkeys carried in the olden days.

Tequila, Sherry and Mojito are some more spirited Spanish gifts to die for. Given this armada of delights, it would be safe to conclude with a pithy aphorism: No Spain, No Gain.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Super Humans

If you meet a guy who has a five-egg omelette and three fried-egg sandwiches laden with cheese and mayonnaise for breakfast, you’d probably call him a glutton. And if you were told that he has a 12000-calorie diet when the average male has 3000 calories, you’d probably think he’s headed straight for a heart attack. But the difference is, we’re talking about Michael Phelps here.

Michael Phelps, as you know, is the Flying Fish. He’s the 6 feet 4 inches guy towering above all athletes produced by mankind. With an unimaginable 23 Olympic Golds to his tally, this swimming legend trains like a maniac. He swims for 6 hours a day and runs on land for 120 minutes. He burns so many calories that he constantly needs to fuel his inner submarine.

In the Rio Olympics, he hauled 5 Golds and 1 Silver at 31, an age when most of his peers would have been swimming with pigs in the Bahamas. You’d be surprised to know that Michael drew a blank in his first shot at Olympics. He finished fifth at Sydney in the Year 2000. But then he was barely 15.

Another giant who had a terrible first Olympics was Usain Bolt. He was selected by Jamaica to run the 200 m race at the Athens games in 2004. Hampered by an injury, Usain didn’t even make the cut. Many wrote him off. But the Lightning Bolt struck back to become the World’s Fastest Man with the unbelievable record of pulling off a triple-triple in 3 consecutive Olympics.

A juicy fact about him is that the name Usain was chosen by his mom on the suggestion of a 12-year-old boy who told her it means ‘beautiful’. Incidentally, till the age of 12, his mom always used to beat him in races that they never timed!

Curiously, Usain has an equally legendary appetite like Michael Phelps. During his 10-day stay at the Beijing Olympics, he’s supposed to have gobbled up 1000 chicken nuggets and loads of French Fries. His weakness for food, might have prompted him to open a sports themed restaurant called ‘Tracks & Records’ at Kingston.

But which of these two greats, is the greatest? If one goes by the glitter of gold, it’s got to be Phelps. The heart, however, doesn’t merely go by numbers. For being a charming trail blazer from a tiny island nation, the race has to be won by a mile by the thunderous Bolt.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

How Big is Small

Google has its massive headquarters in Silicon Valley and it’s famously called Googleplex. The seemingly unremarkable name has something very mathemagical about it.

If you google, the word ‘googleplex’ you’ll discover that it’s 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 100. To normal folks, it might look like just another geeky number. But to scientists, it is the largest number with a name. To give you a perspective of how huge it is, try jotting down the number of zeroes on a piece of paper. Apparently, the whole observable universe will not be enough to fit in the googleplex. It’s that humungous!

Contrast this with the world of small numbers. When we say microscopic, we are probably referring to micro numbers or numbers that are one millionth in size. Bacteria are usually 5 micrometers long. Red Blood Cells are 10 micrometers in diameter. A strand of hair is 50 micrometers in thickness.

As we made more progress in precision measurement, the scientific world switched over to the nano scale or numbers that are one billionth in size. Much of the inner secrets of biology can be gleaned using the nano scale. For example, haemoglobin, the oxygen carrying protein, is about 5.5 nanometers in diameter. And the basic building block of life – the DNA molecule – is around 2 nanometers in diameter.

The world of small then got tinier and tinier with more breakthroughs. Atoms are now measured in picometers (one trillionth). Protons are described with femtometers (one quadrillionth). The smallest known fundamental particles (the Quarks) are quantified in attometers (one quintillionth). And with the discovery of the god particle, many are wondering if using zepto (one sextillionth) or yoctometers (one septillionth) makes more sense. Yocto is one trillionth trillionth. It’s unimaginably inconsequential.

Still, is that the smallest length we can measure? To sidestep this query, Physicists proposed the theoretical concept of Planck Length. It’s technically the number 16 preceded by 34 zeroes and a decimal point. It’s at least one nano times smaller than yocto. Planck Length is the smallest observable length in the universe. If you want to probe teensier sizes, you’d need so much energy that you’d have to create a black hole for it! Hopefully that should put an end to all the small talk.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Lighter Side of Olympics

Jason Statham, the action hero of Transporter, and the Brit star with more Facebook fans than Narendra Modi (54 million fans, at the last count) is a man known for multiple talents. He’s studied Kung Fu, Karate & Kickboxing. He can play football well. And chess, even better. As a teenager, he chose diving as his first love. Not many know, Jason competed in the Olympic trials thrice (Seoul, Barcelona & Atlanta). Thankfully his sporting career nosedived. Else, we’d never have seen him biffing the bad guys to pulp.

Some other celebrities did fare better at the Olympics, though. Dr. Benjamin Spock, the big daddy of child rearing best known for his book ‘Baby and Child Care’, won a gold medal for Team Rowing for the United States at the 1924 Paris games. Philips Noel Baker, British politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1959, won a silver at the 1920 summer games. Incidentally, he’s the only guy to win an Olympic medal and a Nobel.

Trivia aside, the one other thing that’s fascinating about the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ is the parade of odd names on display. Kim Yoo Suk is a perfect example. He’s a South Korean pole-vaulter with no medals to his credit. One vicious meme about him reads, ‘He looked like a winner, till the crowd started to chant his name’. Poor, Kim!

Equestrian William Speed Lane Fox-Pitt is another sportsman worth tracking at Rio. With his name, he could have chosen any form of racing. But our man opted to saddle up. Remains to be seen if he outfoxes his opponents.

Chinese gymnast Dong Dong is apparently eyeing a gold again in the trampoline event. If that happens, don’t be surprised if you’re swamped with headlines like ‘Dong Dong on a Song Song’.

Lee Bum-young is a titter worthy footballer. He made a name for himself as a goalkeeper in the 2012 London games by saving a crucial penalty in the quarter finals. If he hadn’t, everyone would have panned him as a bummer.

I’ll shed light on many more athlete names in the days to come, but for now I’ll wind up with a terrific fact: The first person to use the word ‘Olympian’ in writing was not an ancient Greek. It was Shakespeare.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Living Dead

Ludwig van Beethoven had a nasty surprise in his childhood. He was told that he was the second Ludwig van Beethoven of the family. He didn’t grasp a word of what was being said, till his parents clarified to him that just a year before his birth, they had another baby boy who was christened Ludwig. Sadly, his elder brother didn’t even last for six days. So basically, Beethoven was named after his dead brother.

When Beethoven gave his first public performance at the age of 7, he was billed as a child prodigy. But those who vaguely knew the family, confused him with his brother and raised doubts about his age. That was only one tiny problem. The spectre of the dead elder brother cast a long shadow on his life.

Artist Salvador Dali faced an even bigger predicament. He too was named after a dead sibling. The trouble was, he was born nine months and six days after his elder brother. That made everyone around think that may be Salvador had reincarnated.

Dali spent a good part of his life traumatised. He added many layers of eccentricities to his persona just to be different from what his parents had imagined for him. As he later philosophised, “Every day, I kill the image of my poor brother…I assassinate him regularly, for the ‘Divine Dali’ cannot have anything in common with this former terrestrial being.”

What Beethoven and Dali were bestowed is called ‘Necronyms’ (names of dead ones). And it’s a subject of great debate in the world of nomenclature. It was a prevalent practice in the era when child mortality rates were high. Anxious fathers who wanted their lineage and family name to survive, often resorted to this seemingly morbid practice.

I suspect necronyms might have been common in societies that followed the tradition of naming the first child after the grandfather. If the first child had a premature death, the name was foisted upon the second one. Even Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh was a victim of the tradition. One wonders if the resulting identity crisis caused Van Gogh to paint over 30 self-portraits. To conclude, all I can say is, some names are better off dead. There’s no need to exhume the remains.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Journeying Through Petropolis

Winston Churchill spoke about very many things in his life spanning nine decades. To me, the most insightful statement was this: “I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.” He should know better than anybody else as he had cats, dogs, pigs, butterflies, swans, horses, parrots and even a lion named ‘Rota’ for company!

One man who’d surely agree with Churchill is George Clooney. He had a potbellied pig, ‘Max the Star’, as his pet for 18 long years before he turned his roving eye to his wife Amal Amaluddin.

Choosing to spend many hours with unusual pets is considered therapeutic by stars. That probably explains why Nicholas Cage had a shark, an octopus, and two albino king cobras as buddies. Or why Leonardo DiCaprio chose to cosy up to an exotic African tortoise.

Elvis Presley was another oddball with a penchant for the quirky. Rumour has it that the rock star bought a wardrobe full of suits and ties for his chimpanzee ‘Scatter’ who was later sadly poisoned by one of his maids. A piece of delicious trivia that would delight Karunanidhi & MK Stalin is: Elvis also had a horse by the name ‘Rising Sun’. They should be glad he didn’t call it ‘Two Leaves’.

When the Swiss Open organisers gifted Roger Federer ‘Desiree’, a cow, they assumed that the tennis great would shower love and affection on it. Instead he sent it to a dairy farm and had it slaughtered when the cow didn’t produce enough milk! Clearly, he was no pet champion.

In contrast, history has been rife with examples of immense love. Josephine Napoleon (spouse of Napoleon Bonaparte) used to accord royalty status to ‘Rose’, her orangutan. Salvador Dali, often took his dwarf leopard, ‘Babou’ wherever he went. Once, when Dali entered a restaurant, he was declined entry because of his carnivorous companion. Dali instantly cooked a surreal explanation and said, his friend happened to look wild because he had painted his cat. That pawsome quip saved the day.

Mike Tyson, the boxer famed for biting his opponent’s ears, is also renowned for spending close to $ 4000 a month for the upkeep of three Royal Bengal Tigers (names: Kenya, Storm & Boris). No wonder, he went bankrupt. Reese Witherspoon, however, takes the cake for unusual pets. She has two little donkeys, adorably named ‘Honky’ and ‘Tonky’. Apparently, she’s one lady who can tell her ass from her elbow!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Character Arc

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had four sons: Harilal, Manilal, Ramdas and Devdas. One of them turned out to be a rebellious drunk and was disowned by the Mahatma. Which one?

If Devdas was your answer, in all probability, you were heavily influenced by the Dilip Kumar/SRK classic about a drunken loser who gets sloshed to forget his true love. That’s what well-etched characters do to you. They grab precious real estate in your mind by becoming indelible makers for a definitive set of traits.

Which is why screenwriters and directors spend countless hours debating every little detail about the character, right from the name (Phunsukh Wangdu in ‘3 Idiots’) to how he laughs (remember The Joker’s hysterical cackle?) to what she reads (Sharmila Tagore in ‘Aradhana’ is spotted with the book ‘When Eight Bells Toll’) to what she wears (the Catwoman suit).

Since we are name-ophiles, let’s just stick to the theme of movie character naming. When George Lucas was once asked about how he goes about it, he quipped that a name should telegraph what a character is about. For example: Han Solo, the captain of Millennium Falcon in Star Wars, is a lone-wolf by nature. His surname is indicative of his one-man-army thinking.

Key character names are not randomly plucked from thin air. A lot of research goes into it. When Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar were hunting for a suitable name for the villain in ‘Sholay’, they opted for ‘Gabbar Singh’ aka Gabru, a real life dacoit from the fifties who had a gruesome reputation of lining up 22 children and shooting them.

Even while christening the baddie in ‘Mr India’, Javed Akhtar was seeking an African-ish sounding name that felt exotically evil. He rummaged through very many Hollywood titles before settling for a 1952 Clark Gable movie called ‘Mogambo’.

Quentin Tarantino, the master of the craft, invests as much ingenuity on his minor characters. One of the diamond thieves in ‘Reservoir Dogs’ is ‘Mr. Pink’, ostensibly a nod to Pink Panther, the fictional diamond with a distinctive flaw that resembles a leaping panther.

More often than not, the name choice is whimsical. Like in ‘Forrest Gump’, the protagonist Forrest is named after a racist general just to serve as a reminder that ‘sometimes we all do things…that make no sense’. Whatever the source of inspiration, the big trick in naming characters is that the name should have some character.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Out of Africa

If large pockets of the world still think we are a land of snake charmers, we are equally guilty of nursing some bizarre notions about Africa. We blithely assume it to be a Tarzan comic tourist zoo with well demarcated areas for giraffes, lions, elephants, pygmies, pirates, ebola, AIDS and cricket.

Admit it: your knowledge of the second largest continent sucks! You probably think Afrikaans is the most widely spoken language there (Fact: it’s Arabic). You have no idea how big it is (Fact: it houses 54 countries). You must be under the impression that Sub Saharan Africa is poorer than the word ‘poor’ (Fact: there are as many people below poverty, in 8 states in India).

See, there’s a lot you need to learn about Modi’s latest excuse for earning frequent flier points. Africa ain’t all masai mara and mumbo jumbo. It’s a macrocosm full of surprises.

Coffee, the drink, us South Indians, cannot do without, comes from the Kaffa region in Ethiopia. The story goes that a goat herder named Kaldi discovered it when he noticed his goats jumping with joy after feasting on some berries from a mystery plant.

Even Cola has an African origin. The Kola nut is the fruit of the Kola tree, which was supposedly first planted in Nigeria. Without Kola, we’ll neither have Coca Cola or Pepsi.

Sticking with nature, we couldn’t have enjoyed the Ladies’ Finger or Yam without the generosity of West Africa. The famed Peri Peri sauce of Nando’s, also has the same roots. Piri Piri in Swahili apparently means ‘pepper pepper’.

Remember the legendary Impala car from Chevrolet? It derives its name from the graceful antelope of Africa, best known for leaping over 9-feet high obstacles. By the way, Reebok too, is a nod to the South African antelope called ‘rhebok’.

Likewise, the ultra-fashionable tote bags that a woman can’t do without, has an African connection. They say, ‘tote’ is derived from ‘tuta’ in Kimbundo, which means ‘to carry’.

Jazz, juke, jive, samba, banjo, conga and several other musical and dance forms originate here. And shocker of shockers, in big backward Congo, solar-powered aluminium robots direct traffic equipped with surveillance cameras! So, the next time you reduce Africa to a cliché, you better go on a discovery trek (another African invention) or better still, a safari!

Friday, April 1, 2016

Despoiling a Steel Maker

Steel making has got nothing to with Child Sexual Abuse, right? Wrong. In India, after much public pressure, the government passed a law in 2012 to address the issue of exploitation of vulnerable children. The law was called the 'Prevention of Children from Child Sexual Offences'. So far, so good.

The trouble began when the government circulated an acronym to popularise the act. The POSCO Act seemed easy on the mouth. But the bureaucrats who came up with moniker clearly didn't know about the existence of POSCO, the world's fourth largest steel maker by measure. POSCO is a South Korean giant with a significant Indian footprint. In 2005, the company had grabbed the headlines by announcing a $12 billion steel plant in Odisha. Given Modi's pet theme of Make in India, it's important not to piss off brands like POSCO.

By equating POSCO with Child Sexual Abuse, the government has unwittingly caused enormous embarrassment to the brand equity of the South Korean conglomerate. Fortunately, POSCO isn't a B2C brand. Being more of a B2B brand, this unhappy coincidence will not hurt the company as much. But imagine the damage had the 60 billion dollar company been an FMCG company! Perhaps next time, the government selects a name, it might help to do a name-check before unleashing it to the world.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Zed Letter Day

For 300 weeks, I’ve been serving you a curious potion laced with a hint of trivia, a slice of etymology and a dash of name history. You’ve been a willing partaker of my experiments with truth, no matter how tasteless the servings. Here’s my parting shot dedicated to all you lovely people who’ve been part of my journey.

Befittingly, it’s about the last, lonely letter that probably gets as much respect as the twelfth man in a club cricket team. To clear the air, ‘Zed’ wasn’t always the vestigial tail of the English alphabet. Till the nineteenth century, the ampersand (&) took that slot. But after the dawn of the modern age, the crown of thorns has been worn by Z.

Z owes its origins and its zigzag form to the Greek zeta. Dropped from the alphabet in 300 BC for being ‘archaic’, the letter is staging a comeback of sorts with the advent of start-ups like ‘Zovi’, ‘Zo Rooms’, ‘Zopper’, and ‘Zivame’.

The cool thing with Z is it’s often associated with energy. If you don’t believe me, recall all the z-words you know: Zippy means ‘full of vigour’; Zing is about liveliness; Zest is enthusiasm; Zeal is ‘driven by energy’; Zany is ‘over the top’; and ‘Zindagi’ is life itself.

Another factor that works to its advantage is Z sticks out in serpentine lists. There may be 196 countries, but Zambia and Zimbabwe are likely to figure in everyone’s Top 30 in terms of recall. If you ask a kid to rattle out animal names, chances are ‘Zebra’ might make the cut, pretty fast. Provoke a movie lover into naming European actresses, Hungarian ‘Zsa Zsa Gabor’ might pop up from nowhere. For similar reasons, Zakir Hussain, Zubin Mehta, Zico Coimbra, Zeenat Aman and Zig Ziglar, can never be forgotten while drawing up A-to-Z compilations.

Numerology has always treated Z with respect. Health, stamina, willpower, achievement, diligence, courage, faith and charisma are traits associated with the letter. But do take it with a pinch of salt as the Double Z cues sleep in popular culture. And the mathematical symbol of nothingness is Zero. Still, even if you’re a zombie, with all the Zaras and the Zappos, and the Zippos and the Zomatos, you can’t help but admit, that Z has the last laugh today!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

King of Good Crimes

There’s a new villain in the grand narrative of India. It’s the diamond-watch wearing asura who lives the rich life in a castle in a faraway land, even while his impoverished company owes 9000 crores to a nation, where poor farmers commit suicide due to their inability to lay piffling sums.

Let’s analyse Vijay Mallya’s crime before we crucify him. His award-winning airline that created 4000 jobs bled from day one. It accumulated a pile of debt in full public view right under the nose of the RBI. Air India did what Kingfisher Airlines did at an even larger scale – yes, the Maharaja owes the government 30,000 crores! Strangely no one screamed, shouted or shed a tear. Not even Arnab.

So clearly, what is bothering most people is not that VJ defaulted loans, but ‘how he continues to live it up remorselessly’. The public would have probably loved it had Mallya lived a life of penury and penitence walking street to street with a begging bowl. But Mallya being Mallya, he will always do what comes naturally to him.

Because the life number and name number of Vijay Mallya is 5. Ruled by the planet Mercury, he will continue to punt all his life, take risks and enjoy large slices of luck.

And by the way, Mallya is more pluck than luck. He’s the guy who started his career as an intern at Hoechst and ended up as its Chairman. Having inherited his dad’s brewery business, he took it even greater heights. Capturing 9% of the world whisky market doesn’t happen that often in our country, no?

Where he probably went wrong was: instead of being a Richard Branson, he chose to be a Donald Trump, who incidentally declared bankruptcy not once but four times! In the first instance Trump owed 3 billion dollars. That’s nearly 2.5 times more than Mallya’s bad debt! To think that Trump is in the race for presidency today just goes to show that Mallya still has hope. Lots of it.

The surname Mallya means ‘caretaker of palaces’. He’s been true to his name by amassing property after property. But can he retain them given the current crisis? Or will he capitulate? For answers, we’ll have to look at the names of the horses he owned at Kunigal Stud Farm. There’s one named ‘Capitulate’. It went on to be a winner, against all odds.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Rapper Wrap Up

T Rajendar can legitimately claim to be our first ever rap star. He could effortlessly rhyme thangachi with kottanguchi long before Baba Sehgal could pack chakraya and ghabraya into ‘Thanda Thanda Pani’. But unfortunately for TR, he was suppressed, oppressed, and repressed because of his pedestrian name. Had he repackaged himself as ‘Ra Gender’, ‘T Bear’, ‘Kara D’, or ‘Gangsta R’ he could have won a Grammy or two by now, for the Best Rap Performance!

Such is life. You’ve gotta have a ghettoesque name if you wanna do ghetto-style rap. Which is probably why a Curtis Jackson opted for the stage name 50 Cent.

For the unaware, Curtis chose this as a tribute to an American criminal Kelvin Martin who became infamous as ‘50 Cent’ for robbing just about anyone irrespective of how much they were carrying.

Most rapper names are monikers meant to grab attention - mostly the wrong sort of attention. You need to be smoking a warped kind of weed to call yourself ‘Shorty Shitstain’, ‘Yak Ballz’, ‘Boobe’, ‘Hot Rod’, ‘Young Thugga’ or ‘Pudgee Tha Fat Bastard’, right?

But there are also artists who don’t try to be too wannabe. Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arupragasam, the British Tamil artist, opted for ‘MIA’ after her cousin brother Jaana who went missing in action in Sri Lanka. Cordozar Calvin Broadus was nicknamed Snoopy by his mom as he used to watch a lot of Charlie Brown on TV. So he picked ‘Snoop Dogg’ as his identity.

Shawn Carter opted for ‘Jay Z’ inspired by the ‘Jazzy’ label that was associated with him when he was young. The white rapper Marshall Matthers flirted briefly with ‘Slim Shady’ before settling on Eminem, drawn from his initials M&M. Nayvadius Wilburn selected the offbeat ‘Future’ as he heard many of his buddies say, ‘he’s the future’.

Indian artists have learnt their lessons fast from their blingy brothers in the west. Otherwise why would the ‘Lungi Dance’ man rename himself from Hirdesh Singh to ‘Yo Yo Honey Singh’? The aim to layer the business card with a coat of coolness also prompted Taran Kaur Dhillon to experiment with ‘Hard Kaur’. Bangalore’s up and coming ‘Brodha V’ wouldn’t have made it had he stuck with his given name ‘Vighnesh Shivanand’. The Zambian Tam Bram ‘Lakshmi Narasimha Vijaya Rajagopala Sheshadri Sharma Rajesh Raman’ would have spent all his life saying ‘abhivadye’ had he not shortened it to ‘Blaaze’ (derived from ‘Blasé’, meaning nonchalant)! Ergo, the crux of the matter is: don’t use the name given by your mother; to rock in rap, choose some other!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Big Brand Theory

Real story. A famed venture capital fund once beseeched us to come up with a meaningless name for an apparel start-up. We tried reasoning with them and presented them some crispy, creative names with a whiff of an idea. In their infinite wisdom, they declined them all and went on to buy a 4-letter domain name that rhymes with Bowie. Years later, when someone asked them to explain their name, they put out a story that it’s the Russian word for ‘call me’!

Come to think of it, I have no beef with nonsensical sounding names. There are plenty of them around. The more successful ones have an iota of logic embedded somewhere. When George Eastman devised ‘Kodak’ in 1888, he was clear that he wanted a name that starts and ends with K, with no scope for mispronunciation or misspelling. After experimenting with many combinations, he and his mom hit upon the name that sold a million cameras.

The triumph of Kodak gave rise to a deluge of coinages. Businessmen started exploring newer possibilities in the genre of minted names. In 1903, Caleb Bradham developed a drink for upset stomachs. He named it ‘Pepsi-Cola’ as it was a remedy for dyspepsia. The London Rubber Company fused ‘Durable, Reliable & Excellence’ to birth ‘Durex’ condoms in 1929. The Van Melle brothers hit upon ‘Mentos’ in 1933 probably inspired by the peppermint flavour of their candy. Chester Carlson created ‘Xerox’ in 1949 from the process of ‘dry writing’ or ‘Xerography’. Sam Walton took a piece of his surname and launched ‘Wal-Mart’ in 1962. Around 1968, Intel was carved out of ‘Integrated Electronics’ as it sounded a lot cooler than NM Electronics.

The mad rush for coined names actually began in the late nineties with the explosion of dot coms. The pressure to create something unique led to the ‘altered spellings’ movement and that’s how we got Google, Flickr, Tumblr, Reddit, Digg, Segway, Ffffound, Myntra, Zomato and Qwikr. For those who love their history, La-Z-Boy recliners began this fad way back in 1927!

Another trick used by start-ups is the ‘odd words’ jugalbandi. Pepperfry, PepperTap, Urban Clap, Urban Ladder, Freshdesk and LimeRoad are popular examples. But I am a sucker for puns. So the one coined name that caught my eye in recent times is Nearbuy. When it’s as catchy as that, you don’t need to settle for gibberish like Grofers!

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Seoul Curry

We’re so ignorant about South Korea that some of us may even assume Charles Correa to be a Korean architect. No, I kid you not! Beyond the usual stereotypes of dog meat and Gangnam Style we know next to nothing about them.

Did you know that they are the world’s most innovative economy? More innovative than Germany, Japan or the United States! Do you know that everyone has a broadband connection there with internet speeds faster than the fastest?

I bet you’re not even aware that the South Korean language has at least 500 words in common with Tamil. Which includes shockingly same nouns, pronouns, verbs and interjections like appa (father), amma (mother), na (me), ni (you), naal (day), va (come), anbu (love) and acho (ouch). They even have a 60-year calendar like us and celebrate their Sashtiapdapoorthi (60th birthday)!

Cultural similarities aside, there’s a lot that’s unique about the South Koreans. New born babies turn one, the day they are born, unlike other societies where the age clock starts ticking only after 12 months.

Even their names are very different from the Chinese and the Japanese. They usually follow a 3-syllable nomenclature with the first being the surname and the other two being the given name.

Kim is the most popular surname. A recent study concluded that there are close to 10 million Kims in Korea alone. Park and Lee took the second and third spots in the surname sweepstakes. That could be because Kim and Park were names of royalty that still command respect in the land of the morning calm. The current president Park Geun-Hye’s name literally means ‘gentle like a hibiscus’. An odd rule that the country still follows is, people with same surnames cannot marry each other. Some say it’s necessary to retain the purity of the gene pool.

The most famous South Korean names we know are obviously brand names. Samsung literally translates to ‘three stars’. Hyundai works out to ‘modernity’. Daewoo meaning ‘Great Woo’ is an ode to the chairman Kim Woo-Jung. Kia in Kia Motors is a portmanteau standing for ‘rising out of Asia’. Lotte has an interesting etymology. Its founder Shin Kyuk-Ho was into Goethe. He liked the character ‘Charlotte’ in his novel ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ and as a tribute, he called his company ‘Lotte’. There’s a lot more to learn about Korea. We’ll reserve it for some other day. Till then let me take leave with an anneyong (goodbye)!

1. Clippinger's pioneering research paper on "Korean and Dravidian: Lexical Evidence for an Old Theory".
2. Wikipedia: 'Dravido-Korean Languages' page.