Josna Rege

303. Use Proper English You’re Regarded as a Freak*

In Britain, India, Inter/Transnational, Words & phrases, writing on March 28, 2015 at 10:34 am
Two old friends deep in conversation (© Diana Raj Kumari Photography)

Two old friends deep in conversation (© Diana Raj Kumari Photography)

Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.            

                                                                                                Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

My landlady Vera, a dear person who became a friend over the years, had immigrated from Stockholm, Sweden to the United States when she was a young bride in the 1950s and lived in the same small town ever since. She had visited her native country only infrequently over the years, and had forged and maintained her own unique and hard-won brand of cosmopolitanism in provincial New England. One year a young Swedish student came to the college for her graduate studies and I introduced her to Vera, hoping that each would bring the other a welcome taste of home. After a couple of visits, I asked the student her impressions; she mentioned one in particular, which she found quaint: my friend’s “Fifties Swedish.”

This remark has stayed with me over the years as I am increasingly aware that my own language has become a bit of an anachronism. When using a contemporary American colloquialism, I sometimes find myself putting it in air-quotes or prefacing it with an “as they say,” as if to distance myself from it. Language that I find appropriate to a situation, such as addressing a person whom I’ve never met before (okay, full disclosure: in an email) is considered pedantic and ridiculously formal. Idioms, figures of speech, literary references, and snatches of old songs that leap to my tongue only mystify and amuse if I give voice to them. And when I’m with South Asian or British friends of my own generation, it is delicious to use such words, phrases, and syntax without having to explain myself. As a teacher I have to do a lot of explaining; it’s a strain to have to keep doing so outside the classroom as well.

"Sonam gives Dhanush one tight slap" (

“Sonam gives Dhanush one tight slap” (

dr068ac._digital-rajasthan-real-leather-satchel-handmade-brown-messenger-laptop-genuJust yesterday I ran into a Sri Lankan colleague in the hallway at work, and complimented her on her beautiful leather satchel. She thanked me, then remarked that only she and I would use, or even understand, that word. I replied, “but that’s what it is, isn’t it?” We both laughed with the pleasure of mutual recognition. Chatting with my Bangladeshi girlfriend on the phone one night about an infuriating encounter, I said that I had longed to give the person one tight slap. Not that I ever would have done so, but just uttering that phrase made me feel much better.

Over the past five years on Tell Me Another I have found myself increasingly using the language that comes naturally. Not only does it give me a sense of release to write in my own voice, but the teacher in me feels compelled to add a hyperlink to a definition or explanation in case the reader finds the expression foreign. If I am an anachronism with my 1960s English, at least in a small way I’m keeping my language alive, reaching out across cyberspace to others like me who might feel that thrill of recognition when they read it. Still, the greatest pleasure comes in face-to-face conversation, when old friends who understand each other savour their words as they roll off the tongue.

* From Why Can’t The English?, sung by the delightfully insufferable Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady. Of course, in language usage, what’s “proper” is entirely subjective.

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  1. I always love your use of language, Josna! And I understand it, too. I have similar experiences sometimes with more recent idioms. Some I use, some I don’t. I used to hate to hear “awesome” used so freely to describe things that do not actually inspire awe, but after feeding my ire over the debasement of language for quite some time, it dawned on me that my use of “wonderful” is no different!

    There were a lot of returnee Hungarians when I was there, a lot of whom had left as children in 1956. Hungarians found their speech quite funny, as they were adults with the vocabulary and syntax of little kids!

    I love the photo and Chinua Achebe quote. Thanks for putting them up.

    • Sarah, I got so caught up with posting daily throughout the month of April and then of course the end of the semester, that I neglected to respond to any of the lovely replies to this story. So sorry! Thanks as always for your interesting reply; our experiences that always seems to run parallel to each other. I would be interested in reading what it was like for those Hungarians returning after more than a generation–long enough for their very language, their mother tongue, to sound outdated.
      It’s not so often that we realize, in turning up our nose at the way the young people speak today, that we have done and still do the same thing. I like your “wonderful” example for that reason.

  2. I just triggered a round of chuckling at work about using the phrase, “pitch a fit.” I guess I revealed my self as a Quaint Old Lady linguistically speaking. Well, criminently, as my grandmother would say, who knew?

    • I love “pitch a fit”. I didn’t grow up with it, but now that you say it I realize that I’ve heard it occasionally–more commonly, throw a fit. What is its origin, I wonder? And by the way, consider that you’re doing a service to others when you introduce them to these idioms. I love the sound of “criminently,” too. Is it a malapropism? My English aunt, unfamiliar with raccoons, insisted on calling them “lagoons”. xo J

  3. Some time ago I was in a conversation and said the words, ”One should be able to do it.” A young person said to me, “why do you say that?” I said, “What?” “One,” she said. I explained to her that was the way were taught to speak and write. She smiled and shook her head. I began to wonder what else I said that seemed funny to the younger generation. So I know what you mean Josna.

    • Yes, Don, I’m virtually nodding my head here–or nodding a virtual head, which is it? I do like our generation’s use of “one”–fast disappearing. It can be amusing, I suppose, but hey, I don’t mind being eccentric in my old age. I think that people similarly shake their heads when they receive my emails and text messages that insist on addressing the person by name and signing off with my own; most people don’t do that anymore.
      Wishing you all the best with your move.

  4. Oh yes! I know the feeling! I tried to explain it on the About SloWord page on my blog. One of the reasons my techie blog is languishing is because I can’t use the style I use on my personal blogs on it and I find my writing in the North American dialect is stilted and forced.

    • Perhaps you can find a way to use your own voice, even on your techie blog (which I haven’t checked out–should I, or will it be a foreign language to me?). Only after 45 years in the U.S.–three-quarters of my life at this point (boy, does that sound scary)–am I finding myself using American words, idioms, and sentence construction automatically, at least, from time to time.

      • The techie blog is really Management 101, so the boredom of repeating what is almost common sense ( or should be ) also adds to the pain. Sadly, that blog has been neglected shamefully for over a year now because of those 2 reasons. 😦

  5. Well put, well put!

    • Thanks, Marianne. Of course that photo of the two gentlemen deep in conversation could just as well be you and me. Only the tea is missing.

  6. One of the reasons I got increasingly frustrated with classroom teaching was this same widening gap in use of language, compounded by generational arrogance on both sides of the gap. I would frequently think ‘Why use such limited vocabulary?’ about my younger charges, while they often expressed irritation about my employment of learned words by saying, ‘Why don’t you speak English?’ Hard to hold with relativism when there’s mutual incomprehension; and I can see why older generations (that’ll be me, soon!) retreat into a world of their own while the contemporary world becomes more alien. A timely post, Josna!

    • Thank you for reminding us that of course this is mutual–a gentle admonition, but an important one. We have to keep up with the changing language enough to communicate with the new generations, or we become anachronisms ourselves. After all, what is language for but to communicate?

  7. This posting really strikes a familiar chord. I find a familiar voice when reading your blogs. The “elite” boarding schools in India have nurtured a common rhythm in the language that is shared by them. I am indebted to you for referring me to Amitav Ghosh. I am at the end of his second book in the Ibis trilogy and looking forward to the third book coming out this month. Besides the historical and cultural aspects of the story, the cross cultural languages he uses are directly from my (our?) childhood memory banks . My father worked with primarily British expats and the synthesized Anglo/Hindi/Bengali expressions language (bobachee) that Amitav used was a common tongue between the expats and the local servants/workers.

  8. I love the thought that we share a common language. And yes, Amitav Ghosh’s inspired use of languages, dialects, argots that arose out of that time and traveled along the routes of commerce, colonalism, displacements and migrations. Endlessly fascinating. My Dad and I are both eagerly awaiting the third of the trilogy. In the meantime Dad just went back and read his early, and non-fictional, In an Antique Land, which you might like enjoy while you’re waiting impatiently for the third novel (which I hear may be delayed until August). I had to look up bobachee (it’s been so long since I read River of Smoke–actually, listened to it on tape–that I must go back to it), and found this advance review of Flood of Fire, with bobachee-connah in the title!

  9. We Lived in Egypt for a few years( Anwar Sadat era) and also want to read In an Antique Land but I need to focus on a few family and professional projects so need to avoid any more tempting distractions that capture my mind.

    • Sorry, sorry, I won’t say another word! I too must finish my grading and get down to other pressing work. Here’s to a fruitful and enjoyable summer.

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