An Imperial Legacy of Idiotic English


One of the starting motivators for writing my book ‘Idiotic English and Idiomatic English’ – the first little pebble that rolled from the mountaintop of my musings, which set off bigger pieces until the avalanche of boulders was unstoppable till I reached the last word of this book – was a signboard I saw in my once British governed hometown. Ever since I read what was written on it – ‘Sewing Machines – All Are Repairing Here’ – I have been suffering, for 25 years now, from sporadic attacks of imagery in which a dozen or so sewing machines, each bent over an abused portion from one of their own kith, are busily repairing it, all the while exchanging naughty jokes among themselves, as most clumps of workers in confined workshops in my part of the world are prone to do.

Since then, I have seen far greater evidence of my people’s colonial legacy of idiotic English that only unempathetic imperialist teachers could have been responsible for – they to whom idiomatic English flowed out of their mouths as easily as mother milk flowed in once, while they themselves amused one another with ever newer creations of idiosyncratic expressions which eventually was officially enforced as ‘idiomatic’ English in the curriculum of the colonial schools, but which only served to further confound, confuse and contort the tender language sensibilities of obliging local learners of the language. Idiomatic English is but idiotic English widely impressed on impressionable minds.

But patience was shown its limits at least on some rare occasions of bold resistance. I recall my mother proudly narrating the story of how the Maharaja of Cochin (who reigned during my grandparents’ days) once hired the services of a sahib (‘white man’) tutor. The lessons went smoothly enough, until the tutor unwisely taught his majesty that ‘put’ was pronounced as it is still pronounced today and ‘cut’ was pronounced as it is still idiotically pronounced today. No way, insisted the maharaja. If p-u-t is poot, then c-u-t is coot, he rightly reasoned. The sahib kept insisting it was not so…until the king lost his patience and the tutor…oh no, the tutor didn’t lose his head, that decision could be made only by the British governor of the state; moreover, kings in our land were not as prone to take people’s heads off as the kings of England enjoyed doing to their subjects, and the subjects of France enjoyed doing to their kings, as our school history books say. The tutor was just hustled out of the royal court and forbidden to enter the palace from that day on.

Kerala Varma Maharaja of Kochi (1870 – July 1948), popularly known as Aikya Keralam Thampuran or Kerala Varma VII was the Maharaja of Cochin who ruled between 1946 and 1947. He made a clarion call and through his patriotism defied the diktats of the imperialist rulers, even at the threat of dethronement.

Sometimes idiotic expressions are put to perpetual desolation by indignant locals. One white colonial teacher told his rows of gibbering adult students that they could talk the hind legs off a donkey. Donkeys were not in the same divine class as brahmin heifers, but donkeys were a venerated genre nevertheless. One or two village idiots scratched their heads. Then the gibbering stopped, replaced by a menacing calm. For many of the recruited learners of the King’s English, attending the night classes on the incentive of being eligible for extra rations of the whiteman’s roti, had reached the grade where they could sufficiently understand what ‘hind legs’ and what ‘off’ and what ‘donkey’ meant. Pandemonium ensued, and it was only the intervention of the farmer who supplied his goat’s milk to the teacher every morning that saved the King’s English user from having at least his hind limbs torn off him.

In this living stream of communications, it’s time we took up the sieving pans for ourselves, probe through the murky waters and fling the ugly verbal lumps of dead algae gently over the fence back into the Englishman’s compound, while pocketing the glowing nuggets. If we do that we will within a generation or so be left with a clarified and crystal pure stream of language flowing through our own lands, and from which we can gurgle and gulp living waters of delight any time we want.


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