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December 31, 2013

Divided By A Common Language

Text by Moni Mohsin. Illustration by Hemant Sapre

The apple is no longer just a fruit, a window is not only a casement and a mouse is more than a rodent. Pakistani author, Moni Mohsin traces the way that languages like all living things evolve to renew and revitalise themselves

I remember the incident clearly. I was 18 years old and seated at a dining table in Lahore with some western journalists who had come to Pakistan to report on the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. The dining table was my aunt’s who sat at the head of the table, ruminating on the tragedy that had befallen Afghanistan. A journalist from a British broadsheet asked her if she’d ever had occasion to travel to Kabul in the past and if so, how she had found it. ‘Oh,’ said my aunt smiling a nostalgic smile. ‘I loved it. It was a gay city. There was something in the air. As soon as you arrived there, you couldn’t help but feel gay as well. It had that effect on you.’

My aunt, then 60-odd years old and a dignified, respectable widow, would have been mortified had she realised how the meaning of that particular word had changed since the day when she had been young and gay. I, who like all teenagers, knew with unwavering certainty that I knew everything, was both appalled and amazed at how anyone could not know something so elementary. Fast forward 30-odd years, of which I’ve spent at least the last 20 writing and thinking about popular culture, and by a strange quirk of fate I find myself in my aunt’s well-worn Scholls. Contemporary language has changed so fast that when speaking to my teenage children and their friends, I often feel as if I am one of the last custodians of an archaic dialect understood by a handful of pale, shrivelled survivors of a linguistic holocaust. Judging by my children’s sighs and grimaces and their friends’ polite but embarrassed smiles, I probably am.

Languages are living things and like all living things they must evolve or die out. So if they are to survive they must be predatory; the most successful among them constantly consume and digest words from other languages and cultures to renew and revitalise themselves, thereby remaining relevant to changing times and new experiences. A few years after the British first arrived in India, a whole slew of new, unfamiliar words entered the lexicon; ‘bungalow’, ‘jodhpurs’, ‘veranda’, ‘pukka’, ‘curry’, ‘pyjamas’, ‘monsoon’, ‘jungle’, ‘bund’ are all words culled from languages spoken at the time in India for objects or phenomena for which there were no equivalent words in English.

But aside from encounters with other languages, languages also reinvent themselves by appropriating words from popular culture. So, expressions, phrases and words from sitcoms and comic books and pop songs and the worlds of fashion and design and sometimes even jargon from professional contexts, are absorbed into common usage. If a man refers to his ‘babe’, he doesn’t mean his biological offspring but his girlfriend. ‘Doing your head in’ doesn’t refer to an accident with a hammer; a ‘cool dresser’ is not a habitual wearer of muslin; a ‘hot girl’ doesn’t perspire; a ‘mule’ is not an equine animal; ‘booty’ is not loot; ‘weed’ is not something that grows in polite people’s gardens; your ‘mate’ is not your spouse; your ‘partner’ is not your colleague; a ‘dyke’ is not a barrier; a ‘fairy’ is not a winged creature, ‘camp’ is not a tent. Wicked is good, sick is cool, chav is uncool. Babes are hot, slags are not. You don’t say ‘ugh’ anymore to signal disgust. You say ‘eww’, if you’re cool. And you’d better be a girl if you’re going to say ‘eww’. And ‘whatever’, said with an exaggerated sigh and accompanied by a roll of the eyes and a downward movement of the shoulders means, ‘Do what you want. I don’t give a shit’. And if you’re a corporate type then you like to tell people that you think outside the box and that you, like, hate losers, yeah, and basically as far as perfectionism goes, you’re basically on the same page as Steve Jobs. And no you’re not up your self and nor are you giving me attitude. You’re just telling it like it is. Yeah? Cos you’re not into negativity and you don’t do self-doubt. Yeah?

More recently, international conflict has been the unlikely source of new words in English. Words like ‘jihad’ (pronounced jeee-had, if you work for the CNN) ‘mullah’, (‘mooler’ if you work for the BBC) ‘hijab’ and ‘mujahideen’ (the good guys in the ’80s who morphed into the nasty Taliban) were not in common usage before the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. And the American invasion of Iraq gave us a whole new way of looking at language. When I was a student if you were taken out, it meant you were treated to a dinner/theatre/club night. But when Messrs Rumsfeld and Bush spoke of taking out Saddam Hussein, they weren’t proposing a starry evening on Broadway. And post Iraq, a ‘surgical strike’ does not refer to the downing of scalpels by disgruntled surgeons at your local general hospital. ‘Boots on the ground’ doesn’t mean the respectful practice of taking your shoes off before entering a place of worship. A ‘drone’ is no longer a worker bee; ‘terror’ has nothing to do with horror films; ‘water boarding’ and surfing are not even distant cousins; a ‘no fly zone’ does not refer to an area known for the absence of the common housefly. The ‘axis of evil’ is not a devilish cult. And as for ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, believe me when I say you don’t want to go there.

But by far the most profound change in the English language over the last two decades has come from the rapidly evolving world of technology. Computers, the Internet, mobile phones, social media and digital cameras have not only changed the way we think and work and socialise but also how we speak and understand common everyday language. The apple is no longer just a fruit; ditto the orange; windows are not casements; a mouse is not a rodent; a virus is not an organism; a ‘friend’ may be someone you’ve never met nor have any desire to meet; a tweet is an observation; a poke is not a prod; a like is merely a tick; ‘walls’ are invisible; trolls have morphed from Norwegian gnomes into abusive cyber stalkers; firewalls are not dangerous; FaceTime, well I don’t do FaceTime. Download does not refer to a sagging bum; upload doesn’t mean a good bra; a selfie, before you jump to any conclusions, is a photo you take of yourself!

Since I’m neither a techie nor a wonk nor a geek, my grasp of all of the above is shaky at best. My son is appalled that I don’t have FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and my daughter tells me with a roll of her eyes that I really must learn to be a bit more tech savvy because, you know, YOLO (You Only Live Once). In response, I LOL (Laugh Out Loud) and tell them to talk to the hand. They in turn, swivel around so that they have their backs to me, and pointing to their bottom, they say, ‘The hand’s off duty, talk to the booty’. And what do I do in return? I laugh gaily and say, ‘Whatever’!

Moni Mohsin was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan. She is author of the prize-winning The End of Innocence and Duty Free and a best-selling collection of satirical columns, The Diary Of A Social Butterfly, is based on her column for The Friday Times. She is married with two children and lives between London and Lahore.

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