Monday 6 June 2016

Those Plastic Things

The other day I was in a grocery store buying vegetables. We were supposed to pick up a basket from a pile in the corner, take our pick of vegetables from the crates around the room, and take the basket to the counter, where the owner would weigh each item and finally give us a bill.

The baskets in the corner were almost gone - too many customers using them. An aunty comes up to the counter man, and asks him, “Do you have any more of those… things? Those plastic things?” pointing to the basket in my hand.

Maybe she had a genuine language processing issue. Maybe she’d just started learning English. But more likely (and this is because I’ve seen it in many places around me), she didn’t know that it was called a basket, never bothered to find out, and did not realize that using the precise word would be the most efficient way of expressing her request.

How many of us make the same mistake! There are different words for the same general thing because there are nuances of expression. You’ll see a hundred synonyms for “Said”. There are a dozen words for happiness, as many for sadness and anger. Their meaning differs in degree or connotation or implication. The more you know, the more expressive you get.’s movie section, where they publish the reviews section, is full of comments complaining about this or that reviewer. “He uses such hard words! I couldn’t understand what he was saying.” Whereas, if you actually understand those words, you get a lot more out of the review (duh) than if the reviewer had used the most basic terms to get his point across.

Another example that comes to mind is from that much-forwarded set of 6-word stories written by famous writers. Margaret Atwood’s 6-word story is: “Longed for him. Got him. Shit.” How much of the impact of that story comes from the first word, “Longed”? It could have been “loved him”, “liked him”,  or “wanted him.” But “Longed” gives that extra flavour to the sentence.

Read Thoreau’s Walden. You’ll see he never just says “trees”, he always specifies the type of tree: oak, pine, cedar. I probably couldn’t recognize these trees if they fell on me, but having those words in the book adds all the richness to the descriptions. Imagine if he’s just said “tall green plants” everywhere, like the neighbourhood aunty.

Every Hindi speaker knows about Gulzar now, his mastery of words, his incomparable sense of rhythm. Try, just try, to pick out a word from his poetry, and substitute another equivalent word in its place. You’ll find it extremely difficult to do so.

Increasing your vocabulary is not just for TOEFL studies, folks. Picking up new words, in any language, English or Hindi or Telugu or whichever, only helps you improve your communication, helps you understand others better.

We all sit in deep wells, trapped inside our bodies and brains. Language is all we have to share our feelings with others. Wouldn’t having more ways to do so, be better?

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