Ever since I retired from active service, precluding my having to take a tedious drive to some drudge of an office in unendurable traffic conditions, leaving me scarcely fit to be of any constructive use once I arrived at my place of work, and the same torturous routine repeated all the way back home, I took up reading in right earnest, and writing in even greater earnest. The former complements the latter and helps me write long-winded sentences like the one this essay begins with. At the present time, I am ploughing through a rather elaborate novel by that modern stylist extraordinaire, Martin Amis. Suffice it to say that no sentence written by the son of the late Sir Kingsley Amis, can be taken lightly. You need to read it at least twice over to appreciate the tone and felicity of language, even if you’ve lost the plot after the 50th page. Is it any wonder that Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow has described Martin Amis as the new Joyce, the new Flaubert! More pertinently, Martin Amis does not simply indulge in grandiloquent linguistic puffery to impress the hell out of his readers. That comes naturally. Push comes to shove, he is quite happy to get right down and dirty if that is what it takes to convey the way in which Mr. Everyman expresses himself, if moved to profanity.
Let me add that this piece does not purport to represent a critique of Martin Amis’ style. I can claim no level of competence to even attempt such an onerous task. The reason I brought up the subject of Amis Jr. (an Americanism Sir Kingsley would have cringed at) is that, in common with his fellow distinguished contemporaries such as the late Christopher Hitchens, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan, I found an appealing tendency to introduce words that aren’t actually words at all. At least, not in the sense in which we understand words. They are more like onomatopoeic sounds that eloquently express a person’s emotions in a specific context. All of us, unconsciously, indulge in this habit in our daily conversations. If Martin Amis’ indulgence is à la mode, P.G. Wodehouse was the original Master. So much for genuflection to British writers.
Before I get down to the heart and soul of this piece, here’s some amazingly nonsensical gems from Amis, justly celebrated as the modern master of flawless prose. ‘Puckapuckapuckapucka. Bar bar dee birdle dee boom: ploomp!’ And just to round it all off nicely, ‘Derdle erdle ooom pom. Meemawmeemawmeemaw.’ (Source: London Fields). I’ve read that in context seventeen times and still flailing and groping to grasp. That’s genius for you. Not that Amis can claim pioneering status to this kind of literary gobbledygook. I recall, several decades ago, cracking up at The Goon Show on Radio and TV, starring Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe when they sang in joyful disharmony, ‘Ying tong iddle I po.’
Thus inspired, I fell to thinking about how most of us, who converse daily with our family and friends, use expressions almost without thinking, and if I were to painstakingly list them out, it would cover the entire English alphabet. A challenge I decided to take up. Not all the words, and I use the word ‘words’ loosely, contained herein are to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Some of them will qualify, others will be pidgin derivatives from local languages, particularly Indian languages. I am acutely aware that covering all the 26 letters of the alphabet might be viewed by some as a trifle contrived. Poetic licence is taken by exception. As this is a stream of consciousness effort, I am not yet in a position to know if everything will turn out just so. If not, that’s just ‘my bad’, to use another cringe-worthy Yank colloquialism.
With that wordy introduction, we will start with the letter A and work our way assiduously, putting one foot in front of the other, all the way through to Z.
Ayyayyo! – Microsoft Word, in that snarky way it has, shoves in a red squiggle to caution me that there is no such word. Well, Mr. Gates, I have news for you. Wherever the ancient tongue of Tamil is spoken, ‘Ayyayyo’ is an expression used to denote extreme anguish, despair and disappointment. If someone called you to say that a dear friend has kicked the bucket the first sound that will escape your lips would be ‘Ayyayyo.’ Ditto if you’re told India have lost five wickets for 20 runs in the first hour of a Test Match. It is the equivalent of ‘Oh my God,’ but not a direct translation. With internationalism on the rise, I fully expect ‘Ayyayyo’ to gain global currency. ‘Are you listening, OED?’
Bleah! – Those of you who follow the Peanuts comic strips will be familiar with Charlie Brown’s all-knowing star beagle, Snoopy. Whenever anything upsets Snoopy, he will make a face and go ‘Bleah’, now an integral part of comic book lexicon.
Crikey! – Commonly used exclamatory interjection generally denoting surprise, amazement or any intense surge of emotion. Bernard Woolley from the memorable Yes Minister / Yes Prime Minister TV serials frequently went ‘Crikey’ when agitated.
Duh! – A sarcastic and derisive conversational term to indicate what somebody has just said is stupid, dumb or inane.
Eeeks! – Mostly screamed by members of the gentler sex whenever a rodent, lizard, cockroach or any creepy crawly scurries past.
F**k! – My upbringing and innate prudery prevents me from spelling out the entire word, but this is an all-encompassing, comprehensive and commonly employed expletive to denote any extreme negative emotion, but can also be employed in a positive context. As in, ‘F**k, you’re a genius bro.’
Gadzooks! – This old-fashioned exclamation dates back to the early 1600s but remained in vogue through to the late Victorian era. It’s an example of what’s known as a ‘minced oath.’ That is to say you actually want to say ‘F**k,’ but need to water it down to ‘Gadzooks.’ Add ‘Grrrr’, if you approach Snoopy gnawing on a bone.
Ho-hum – Indicates extreme boredom or resignation. Nowadays, people just rudely interject with ‘boring.’
Ick! – Gross.
Jiminy cricket! – An archaic muted oath for ‘Jesus Christ’, expressing shock, horror or revulsion. Today, we just say ‘Jeeez-us.’
Ka-boom! – ‘I heard an explosion, “Ka-boom.” Like a gas main going off. It was only a car backfiring.’
La-di-dah – Pretentious and snobbish. ‘She and her Gucci bag and la-di-dah accent. Makes me sick.’
Mar gaya! – You’ve just got news that the Sensex has tanked 1000 points. That’s when you go, ‘Mar gaya!’ If it tanks 2000 points you go, ‘F**k my brains.’
Nyet – ‘No can do’ in Russian, which we often employ to impress others of our knowledge of a foreign tongue!
Ooh-la-la! – Very French, very Maurice Chevalier. When you want to appreciate anything beautiful, especially the female of the species, you go ‘Ooh-la-la.’ Then there’s ‘Ouch’ when your finger is caught in a door jamb, and ‘Oops!’ when you spill hot tea down your guest’s shirtfront.
Pssst! – The hissing sound you make when you wish to draw someone’s attention without anybody else noticing. Also ‘pooh pooh’, when you’re being dismissive, and dog ‘poo’ for you-know-what.
Quack – derived from the sound made by ducks, and also used to describe a doctor who doesn’t know his arm from his elbow. Arm can be substituted with a colloquial term beginning with ‘a’, to describe the human bottom.
Rah-rah – to display exaggerated fervour and excitement as in, ‘a great deal of rah-rah was witnessed during Modi’s visit to the US.’
Shush! – As the sound of the word suggests, indicating to someone to ‘shut the f**k up.’
Tut-tut – A traditional sound of disapproval, as in, ‘Tut-tut, mind your language.’ Or Winnie the Pooh’s memorable ‘Tut tut, it looks like rain.’ In India when a baby does its No. 2 business, one would say ‘Baby tuttee kiya.’ Forgive the frequent scatological references. Needs must.
Ugh! – You go ‘Ugh’ when something disgusts you, like Snoopy’s ‘poo’ on your front doormat. There I go again!
Voila! – Magicians say ‘Voila’ when they pull the rabbit out of a hat or cleave a hapless woman in twain. Common folk use it to let others know they know one word in French.
Wee-wee – Your three-year old has done its No.1 business on your friend’s Persian carpet. ‘Mummee, I went wee-wee on the carpet.’ And let’s not forget the pig that ‘cried wee wee wee all the way home!’
XXX – Do not smuggle in a DVD into your home with an XXX rating. Waste of money. You can get it all on Netflix.
Yuck! – Same as ‘ick’, only more gross.
Zap – A non-word denoting utter and startled surprise. ‘I was “zapped” out of my mind when Beyonce wafted into my room.’ And if you’re famished, you can order a ‘Zinger’ from McDonald’s.
That’s it. I am done. ‘Phew.’