Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Truth About False Friends

It all started with a Kollywood flick called ‘Anjaan’. I assumed it’s a bio pic about the Bollywood lyricist Lalji Pandey who wrote under the pseudonym ‘Anjaan’ (Hindi for ‘anonymous’). Turns out, it’s a typical dishoom dishoom Suriya movie featuring an ‘Anjaan’ or fearless protagonist. That got me thinking about False Friends or words that sound the same but have different meanings in different languages.

My first encounter with a false friend was as a geeky teenager in Varanasi when I discovered Kundi (Tam slang for ‘rear’) meant latch in Hindi. I laughed out loud then. So did many buddies from Andhra when they figured out that Randi (Telugu for ‘come’) meant a hooker, up north.

With 1635 recognised languages in our country, I am sure we have plenty of such interlingual oddities. ‘Patti’ is one that comes to mind instantly. It cues a hamlet or a room in Tamilnadu. In Kerala, it’s a dog. While in the cow belt, they use it as synonym for bandage. Now you know why Mallus snigger at us when we say we love watching patti mandrams (a Tamil style debate)!

Spaniards often recount how foreigners think embarazada is the Spanish way of saying ‘embarrassed’ when it actually means ‘pregnant’. Another word that causes titters is preservativos. If a foodie walks into a mall in Madrid and asks for ‘preservativos’ you certainly won’t get preservatives. Prepared to receive a packet of ‘condoms’!

If you travel back in time to Rome and enlist in an elementary maths academy, chances are you’ll find it too distasteful as the word ‘sex’ will rear its head way too often. But the moment you learn sex is six in Latin, you might just breathe easy.

Likewise, if a Tamilian flies to Tokyo and asks for a manga (mango), he might be handed a comic because that’s what it means in Japan.

One can dig up a lot more. Apparently ‘hell’ in German means ‘light hue’. And ‘handy’ is a mobile phone. ‘Left’ is ‘Turnip’ in Arabic. ‘Exit’ is ‘success’ in Catalan. ‘Gift’ is ‘to marry’ in Danish. And ‘Fart’ is ‘speed’ in Swedish. Clearly, with friends like these, you don’t need enemies!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Lords of the Oval

The average cricket fan’s knowledge of cricket stadiums is way below average. When I asked a self-proclaimed addict to guess the size of the cricket field, he gave me a know-all look and answered: ‘22 yards’.

I bowed before his infinite wisdom and mustered the courage to pose one more question: is the Maracana (where the 2014 FIFA world cup finals was staged) bigger than the Eden Gardens? He replied: ‘Obviously’. He was wrong again as the Eden Gardens is about 3 times larger and can seat 12,000 more people!

The blame for the cricket buff’s ignorance should be laid at the door of the banal commentators who fill our heads with nothing more than ‘lush green outfield’ and ‘the stadium is packed like a can of sardines’. One has rarely heard any shimmering insights on any of the arenas from the Siddhus and the Shastris.

Eden Gardens has hosted 39 test matches in the last 70 years. But never once have we been told that it’s the only international cricketing venue to be named after a woman. To be specific, it’s a nod to Emily Eden, a Jane Austen style authoress and the sister of the then Governor General of India.

Actually, every other ground has a tale waiting to be discovered. Did you know that the Gaddafi Stadium at Lahore is a tribute to the Libyan leader Col. Gaddafi? It was Pakistan’s way of saying ‘thank you’ for a speech he gave in support of its right to possess nuclear weapons.

Even Lord’s has an interesting backstory. It’s named after Thomas Lord, a wine merchant and bowler who was commissioned by the earlier avatar of MCC to find a suitable ground for their matches.

The Gabba, to most outsiders, is a quirky choice for a White Aussie stadium. But everything falls in place when we find out that it’s a locational moniker like Mohali derived from the suburb ‘Woolloongabba’ (aborigine slang for ‘fighting place’).

The Iqbal ground at Faisalabad in Pakistan is the only one to have honoured a poet. The poet was of course Allama Muhammad Iqbal (the man who wrote ‘Saare Jahan Se Accha’). Likewise Pallekele and Antigua are the exceptions to have stadiums named after cricketers - Muthiah Muralitharan & Viv Richards. Bet you didn’t see that beamer!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Germane to Germans

Ever since that scandalously, shockingly, appallingly, dreadfully, outrageously, hideously, horribly-gone-wrong 7-1 humiliation of Brazil, the world has warmed up to the awesomeness of Germany.

Ergo, some familiar stereotypes have been dusted up, varnished and put back on the conveyor belt of circulation. Talk of ‘German precision’ abounds. And a veritable blitzkrieg of clich├ęs is raining down from the skies.

It’s perhaps the right moment to learn something new about Deutschland just to improve the quality of your conversations in social media. Let’s start with the football team that’s making waves. You’re now familiar with Lahm, Muller, Klose, Kroos and Schweinsteiger. Have you ever paused to wonder about their surnames?

Muller actually means ‘miller’. Klose is a variation of ‘Nicholas’. Kroos decodes to ‘wine bottle’ and Schweinsteiger works out to ‘pig climber’! If the pedestrian nature of the meanings surprised you, let me usher you into the world of German surnames where deceptively simple monikers offer cultural clues into the genealogy of the fatherland.

Habitational surnames give us an inkling of the place of origin of the forefathers. ‘Einstein’ is a classic example. Literally interpreted, it translates to ‘one stone’. What it alludes to is the fact that one of the great grandfathers of the bad-haired genius used to live near a rock. ‘Eisenstein’ has similar roots. It means ‘iron stone’ and when you put it in context, it refers to someone located near an iron ore mine. Likewise, a mountain dweller would be a ‘Bergman’, a riverside resident would either be a ‘Bach’ or a ‘Becker’, and ‘Buchwald’ would be from a beech forest.

Occupational surnames give us a hint of the kind of professions the Germanic tribes used to dabble in. ‘Mahler’ meant ‘grinder’. ‘Beckenbauer’ would cue ‘basin maker’. ‘Jaeger’ would be a ‘hunter’. ‘Faber’ and ‘Schmidt’ would refer to ‘one who works on metal’. ‘Schumacher’ would connote ‘shoemaker’. ‘Schneider’ would imply ‘tailor’. ‘Zimmerman’ would signify a carpenter. ‘Kaufman’, a merchant. And ‘Kohler’, a charcoal maker.

Nicknames also offered fodder for surnames. For instance, black haired ones were called ‘Schwarzkopf’, brown haired ones ‘Braun’, white-haired people ‘Weisz’, the curly haired ‘Kraus’ and the bald folks ‘Kahl’.

Before I go ‘Auf Weidersehen!’ let me conclude with ‘Lahm’. It denotes a ‘lame’ person! Certainly not a name you’d associate with a champion footballer, right?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

What Tamil owes Hindi

A silly debate has reared its unseemly head, once again. There’s talk of language war if Hindi is used as the official language of communication. The Touchy Tamilian has woken up from deep slumber and is now hyper active on social media advocating the need for eternal vigilance against imposition. This is perhaps the right moment to record the scintillating contribution of the North Indian lingo to the Tamil milieu.

Let’s start with Churidars - the default ethnic office wear for women in Tamil Nadu. If you didn’t know, ‘Churidar’ is a Hindi word that alludes to the ‘bangle like’ wrinkle formation one can spot around the ankle area when one wears the attire!

Several culinary delights served by your neighbourhood Saravana Bhavan owe their origins to the world’s fourth most spoken language: be it the Puri (meaning ‘filled’ or ‘puffed’), Pulao (from the root word for ‘ball of rice’), Paneer (‘cheese’), Paratha (‘cooked dough’), Chapati (‘flattened out’), Ras malai (‘juicy cream’), Kesari (‘saffron’) or Beeda Paan (‘feather leaf’). Even Saravana Bhavan is an etymological derivative of the Hindi words Shravan (‘the 22nd nakshatra’) and Bhavan (‘home’).

Kollywood stars Kamal Haasan (‘happy lotus’), Rajinikant (‘tuberose’ flower), Ajith (‘invincible’), Vijay (‘victory), Arya (‘noble’), Dhanush (‘bow’), Trisha (‘desire’) and Nayantara (‘starry eyed’) wouldn’t have got their names had it not been for the munificence of Hindi.

Now, before you jump at me for mixing up Sanskrit and Hindi, allow me to point out that a large chunk of the vocabulary of Hindi is borrowed from two sources - Sanskrit and Urdu. So whether it’s ‘Vishwaroopam’ or ‘Biryani’, the attribution should be to that much reviled boli from the cow belt.

Purists would be amazed to know that Tamil and Hindi share at least 1000 words in common. All thanks to Hindi’s big daddy Sanskrit. Some quick words that spring to mind are: Anyaayam (‘unfair’), Seemai (‘boundary’), Aarambham (‘beginning’), Amavasai (‘no moon day’), Kavidhai (‘poetry’), Kadhai (‘story’), Natakam (‘drama’), Nayakan (‘hero’), Udayam (‘rise’), and Sooryian (‘sun’).

Ironically, when you club the last two words, you get the election symbol of the virulently anti-Hindi DMK!

Thankfully, the silent majority in Tamil Nadu is fully aware of the immense contribution of Hindi to our culture. Which is probably why the Kuppans and Suppans are happy jiving to ‘Saroja, saamaan nikalo’!