English vinglish

Though my official designation says something else, I like to think of myself as a ‘wordsmith’ — I help people effectively articulate what they want to say through the written word. Everyday, I meet numerous folk — from college students to industry veterans — each of them smart and accomplished in their own right, but for whom English is the Achilles’ heel.

Just the other day, I got this e-mail from a student, “Your classes, the insights you shared, the techniques you taught — they are indescribable. The last nail in the coffin was your phone call to me the night before my test. Thanks a bunch.”

I read it three times very carefully before calling him up to clarify what he intended — genuine compliment or sarcastic comeback? However, he seemed positively delighted to hear from me.

“Of course I enjoyed your classes! Didn’t you get my e-mail?”

“Er… yes I did. You said my classes were ‘indescribable’?”

“Yeah — they were so awesome, I had no idea how to describe them!”

“Oh! But you said that the last nail in the coffin was my phone call! All I wanted was to wish you all the best!”

“Yeah — I really appreciated you calling.”

“So, when you said ‘nail in the coffin’, you meant ‘icing on the cake’?” I ventured hopefully.

“Yeah — it’s the same thing, right?” he said, nonplussed. I spent the better part of an hour explaining positive and negative connotations to him.

A girl who I’d helped write a statement of purpose for her admission to a foreign university also made a similarly dubious remark recently.

“Once I got your feedback on my writing, it was all downhill from there. Things went off really well,” She gushed.

Wait a minute — everything went off without a hitch and yet, it was all downhill? I was aghast.
Until she explained.

In her mind, an ‘uphill’ task required a lot of drudgery and hassle, whereas a ‘downhill’ event was effortless and smooth-sailing. I could almost see a speech bubble with “Duh!” pop up above her head, as she explained this ridiculously simple reasoning to me. After trying in vain to elucidate why ‘downhill’ has a negative connotation, I withdrew gracefully.

The business analyst whose B-school interview had gone “for a toss”, when in reality, he had done extremely well and had merely borrowed the cricket term ‘full toss’; the successful entrepreneur who wanted to “balance her carrier in the journey of life”; the student who wanted to “start his preparation from scratching”; the projects coordinator whose ‘oblivious’ reason to join a particular university was its “affective” leadership programme… I have a Pandora’s box full of linguistic faux pas committed by these folks.

The underlying problem is that their knowledge of English is not fundamentally flawed — most of them have been educated in English medium schools and speak the language more or less fluently. However, very few are voracious readers and their knowledge of the finer aspects of the language is limited to what they have heard others say. They know many big words, but not the contextual meanings of these words. They pick up and spew jargon mercilessly, without the slightest idea of what they are saying (“I wish to aggregate and leverage my notable skills and capabilities to optimise the utilisation of the company’s valuable assets, effectively strategise and insightfully impact the bottomline of the business.”) They are aware of, but not sufficiently familiar with many commonly used expressions.

A little knowledge is indeed dangerous. However, ‘irregardless’ of what I have said so far, I do not wish to ‘wreck havoc’ in the minds of my readers. After all, ‘for all intensive purposes’, a language is merely a medium of communication, and if the end is achieved, do the means matter so much?

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