In a recent case heard in the Delhi High Court, a single-judge bench consisting of the estimable Justice Prathiba M. Singh ruled, inter alia, that the use of phrases like ‘any Tom, Dick and Harry’ constitutes slang and goes against court procedures in the conduct of its weighty affairs. To pretty much put the lid on it, the Honourable Judge gave it as her considered opinion that ‘such language is not permissible in pleadings before the court.’ So saying, she dismissed the petitioner’s plea. At which point, I am assuming the petitioner, suitably chastised, slunk off tail between legs, to redraft his plea.
Now, it is of supreme indifference to me and the purport of this piece to go into the details of the abovementioned case. The merits or otherwise of the petitioner’s plea is of precious little consequence to my area of concern. As my English master in school might have acutely observed, ‘it has nothing to do with the price of fish.’ As a lover of the English language, however, what set my brows furrowing and teeth grinding was the ruling itself and why an everyday, common or garden phrase like ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ should give rise to a stern rap on the knuckles in judicial corridors and raise the hackles of the sitting judge.
Purely on a technical point, would our courts find the Indian equivalent, ‘Amar, Akbar and Anthony’ more acceptable? Just curious. Also, I worry about this ruling setting a dodgy precedent, a principle on which jurisprudence the world over has relied on for ages. Let me hasten to add that the principle here qualifies the term ‘precedent’ and not ‘dodgy precedent.’ It is prudent to clarify these things before some judicial beak pounces on me with a tort or malfeasance or some such unintelligible charge.
To put it more lucidly, if the phrase ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ is considered improper today, will it be something else that irks the judiciary tomorrow? To take a random example, will the expression ‘burying your head in the sand’ be deemed objectionable to some sitting or standing judge, who got out of the wrong side of the bed that morning or is unfavourably disposed towards ostriches? We enter the grey world of subjectivity here, where interpretation and reference to context can determine the outcome of the decision. One man’s meat could be another man’s poison, depending entirely on one’s dietary preference. I guess one should not beef about it. There I go again! Tilting boldly at the windmills of acceptable judicial phraseology.
All this cogitation led me to muse on an imaginary situation in one of our courts where the judge and lawyer concerned appear to be ranged on opposite ends of the linguistic spectrum, leading to unintended or intended gaffes and verbal jousting. While this is being contemplated mainly in jest, it is directly inspired by the recent judgement outlined above, from which it can be speculated upon that such objections to how we employ phrases and epigrams may not be all that far-fetched.
‘Your Honour, my client has been charged with ill-treating his wife. They have been married for six years. Every time he asks her for money, she tells him to go take a flying jump. To add fuel to the fire, she also tells him to get lost. I am translating loosely.’
The judge struck an admonishing tone. ‘This court does not appreciate the use of phrases like “take a flying jump” and “get lost,” even if loosely translated. I consider it an insult to these proceedings. We caution Counsel and ask him to have a care.’
‘But Your Honour, that is what the good wife actually said. How am I to defend my client if am not permitted to quote verbatim the obloquy that his wife hurled at him? For crying out loud! Your Honour.’
‘Counsel, kindly do not use big words like “obloquy,” in my court. I am not impressed. Also, please do not start a sentence with “but.” It is discourteous and not grammatically acceptable. Wren and Martin would have frowned. What is more, I consider employment of the phrase “for crying out loud” inappropriate and bordering on coarse slang. You are skating on thin ice, Counsel.’
Defence Counsel muttered under his breath, ‘Is “obloquy” a big word? It has only three syllables. What about “skating on thin ice,” is that permissible in these hallowed portals?’
Cupping her right ear, the Judge inquired, ‘I did not quite catch that, Counsel. Would you repeat what you just said, please?’
‘It was nothing important, Your Honour. Merely commenting that there are a few thin mice scurrying around on the premises. Please don’t get all hot and bothered about it. Incidentally Your Honour, who are Wren and Martin? Pals of yours?’
‘How dare you suggest that I was getting hot and bothered about anything? I will not allow such off-hand references to my mental state. This is a hard enough job, as it is. My patience has its limits. Anyhow, you are straying from the subject on hand. Your client is accused of slapping his wife around in an inebriated state, simply because she refused to part with Rs.200/- so he can go out and get another bottle of country liquor. What does he have to say for himself for such abominable behaviour? Before you answer that, if you have not heard of the revered grammarians Wren and Martin, you are beyond help. Further, I would advise you to say “friends” rather than the casual and slangy “pals,” and no, they are not. Friends of mine, I mean.’
Matters were getting a bit hot and heavy now. Counsel took a gulp of water and responded. ‘I don’t mean to be flippant, Your Honour, but how could my client have obtained another bottle of country liquor if his own wife did not part with some cash? Stands to reason, does it not? He is sadly unemployed, she is a housemaid, and the man needs his drink. It’s an open and shut case. Tinkerty-tonk.’
‘Open and shut case? Counsel, if you keep opening your mouth to talk nonsense, I will have to shut it for you. Tinkerty-tonk? Tinkerty-tonk? Good heavens, man. Where do you pick up these corny phrases? Enid Blyton? Look, you might fancy Noddy in Toyland for your literary allusions, but you may treat this as a final warning. Any more stupid comments or schoolboy slang and I will find you in contempt. Samjha?’
‘Your honour, with the greatest humility I must strongly object to your suddenly and without notice, introducing the interrogative, ‘Samjha?’ We are not all familiar with Malayalam. I am from Bengal.’
‘Very funny, Counsel. Malayalam eh? I cannot believe you do not even have a working knowledge of our national language. I have a good mind to have you disbarred. I think these proceedings are turning into a farce, and I intend to put a stop to it. For the last time, tell me why this alcoholic husband should not pay damages and be put behind bars for an extended period. That should sober him down and he may come out a contrite and penitent man. And with luck, a better husband. What say you? And don’t say, “That’ll be the day.”’
‘Duly noted. Although you are speaking Your Honour, I clearly sensed that you started a sentence there with the word “and.” Twice. To commit such a solecism once may be regarded a misfortune. Twice seems like carelessness. Forgive me Your Honour, I was merely paraphrasing Oscar Wilde. You were intolerant of my beginning a sentence with “but.” What price “and,” then? Craving your indulgence, perhaps you will allow me to quote Mrs. Susana Centlivre, who coined the phrase “but me no buts” in 1709 in her play The Busie Body. However, as Bernard Woolley, the PM’s Principal Secretary clarified in the celebrated British television comedy series Yes Prime Minister, it was Walter Scott’s employment of the phrase in The Antiquary in 1816 which made it fashionable.’
‘Have you quite finished Counsel, or do you have more such hilariously improving literary references to regale us with? We are not running a lecture here on The History of the English Language. Kindly step on the gas. I haven’t got all day. Why are you smirking?’
‘Sorry, your Honour, merely smiled appreciatively. Liked your “step on the gas.” Begging your pardon. Got carried away by my own eloquence. I was merely making a point to impress upon you that I can, if the mood takes me, string an uninterrupted set of sentences without resorting to, in your memorable phrase, coarse slang.’
‘Very considerate of you, I am sure. If I am ever invited to the Old Bailey, I will make sure you accompany me. Well, we are done for the day, I think. I shall pass sentence tomorrow. The case itself appears to have taken a back seat what with Counsel’s pyrotechnics with the Queen’s English, which has so enlivened these staid proceedings.’
‘Thank you, Your Honour. I am sure no Tom, Dick or Harry could have conducted this case with the ready wit and aplomb that you have exhibited in such stellar fashion.’
‘Touché Counsel. Or for that matter, any Amar, Akbar or Anthony.’
‘Touché right back at you, Your Honour. In conclusion, let us not forget that Harry has been disowned even by the Queen.’