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July 28, 2011

10 English phrases that make perfect sense to Indians

Indianism, Indian English

As humans, we have an ability that is so utterly unique in the natural world – a behavioral pattern that was so transformative, that it effectively changed the trajectory of our evolution. We can take an innovative thought and share it with another person by simply recombining sounds we learned to make as children.

Sure, almost all species communicate. But, only humans have devised this trick called language. Where did this unique trait come from? Why did it evolve? Why are we the only species that has it? While there are not satisfactory answers yet, suffice it to say that there is something peculiar and extraordinary about language that makes simple explanations suspect.

Evolutionary edge from language

According to evolutionary biology, only those traits and behaviors which provide evolutionary benefits survive. An evolutionary benefit is simply anything that helps survival. Example: Tall giraffes survived because they were able to eat from the tops of trees and also developed powerful long legs that can kick even a lion’s head off.

Why language survived is easier to explain than why it arose. Somewhere along the line, humans who had hitherto been “hunters” settled down to become “gatherers”, and formed “civilizations”. In this new construct, language became a “marker”, much like an “identification badge” that was useful in forming tribes. Tribe formation ensured mutual protection of people in the tribe, and so language came to provide an evolutionary edge. Ironically, language which played a useful role in aiding survival, eventually turned into the No. 1 leading killer in the history of humans. More wars have been fought and more lives lost over language than even religion, a sobering reflection on the passions that language can evoke, and perhaps a topic for another day.

English, the World’s Second Language

Once an insignificant language spoken by a handful of people on a tiny island in the North Sea, English has grown to be the global language of science, technology and trade. So much so that China is now the largest English speaking country in the world. And, it’s not just the Chinese. English is in so much demand around the world as the language of advancement that an Indian has built a temple to the goddess English, adding her to the 330 million deities of the Hindu pantheon. Now that English is a global language, with non-native speakers outnumbering native speakers, it has taken on a life of its own in non-English-speaking countries, and the question of correctness, of who owns English, is taking on a new spin.

10 English phrases that make perfect sense to Indians

Let no one misconstrue my attitude as mocking or critical. Far from the truth, as a matter of fact. In the peculiarities of Indian English, I see the boundless creativity of our nation, and its charismatic ability to take anything and put its own indelible stamp on it.

10. Convent educated

An excellent vestige from colonial British Raj. Today used to mean “studied in a Christian school“. Convent comes from the fact that back in those days when there were still nuns, nuns used to teach, and nuns lived in convents back in those days. Clear as crystal, right?

9. Issueless divorcee

Telling a thousand lies is a mere trifle if one has to perform a marriage, as we Indians like to believe. Matrimonial ads abound with prevarications of various kinds, and take full advantage of the foibles of Indian English.

“Rohit, so sorry to hear about your divorce. How are you holding up?”

“Oh that? No problem. It’s going swimmingly well. Other than having to give up my house and half my fortune to the ex, it’s been practically issueless”

Issueless divorcee means divorcee without children. Because, err, children have been known to cause issues.

8. Passing out

Translation: Completed or graduated from school or college or university. The term persists, thanks to the national obsession with tests and exams. Graduating college is the equivalent of passing the associated tests and exams.

“You studied at IIT Madras? When did you pass out?”

“Right after I saw the exam questions”

Or, it could be something as simple and straightforward as “All drinking water in this establishment has been personally passed by the manager”

7. Revert

Translation: Will get back or respond. Dictionary meaning is “regress” or “return to a previous state“. In physics, springs revert. In India, humans do.

“When do you expect to reverse the annual fees on my lifetime free credit card?”

“We will look into it, and revert back to you as soon as possible”

Evokes images of the call center individual rushing off to a therapist and undergoing past life regression to understand how he accumulated the karma and gunas in his past life that caused him to be answering my question on that day.

6. Only

There are several types of shenanigans possible with this simple four letter word.  “I am leaving now only”, “I am leaving only now” all the way to “I only am leaving now”. You probably caught the drift of what’s being attempted here already.

5. But

Used to express doubt, when even there is no reason for doubt. And like “only”, it can make unexpected appearances in any part of any sentence.

Lawyer: “You are lying. How are you sure that my client is the murderer?”

Witness: “I saw him stabbing the victim forty three times but”

A combination of “but” and “only” has been known to spook entire fleets of visiting American executives into thunderstruck silence during business meetings. Add “only” to the witness response above for maximum effect.

4. OK

No one really knows how this term entered the English language. Indians use it to mean anything. Just about anything. Period. There is no known translation for its Indian usage. Folks are advised to make their own interpretations which can vary according to exigencies of situations.

3. Doing the needful

This is a delightful phrase, like avara kedavra, with magical powers. It means to ask someone to do something that neither party has any idea how to get done. Use it often and use it early. See below for example of perfect usage.

Boss’s email to employee: “I need one dragon tooth, two strands of unicorn hair and Harry Potter’s Elder Wand right away. Please do the needful”

2. Intimate

In India, there is a rather unusual usage of this word in the context of informing or notifying someone, which connotes common ancestry with “revert”. “Once I revert, I will intimate you” can be intimidating to handle, we imagine.

1. Felicitate

This word is delightful for the simple reason that no other English speaking country uses it. A bit of a tongue twister, it continues to survive in the written form, in Indian newspapers and government memos. No one else in the world felicitates. But, when you set foot in our lovely country, you will be awash and neck deep in felicitations.

The final word

I can understand the angst that some readers may have about the decline of “propah” English. As consumers, we all want dependable and high quality products. But, when we get too much of the same, we seek, nay, crave the unique, the outlier, the imperfection that makes life interesting. This is true for language as well. The way language works, we all get to go off-script from time to time.  Because we are like that only.

Write back and share your favorite Indianisms proudly. And, oh yeah, let the felicitations begin!


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  • Appa Amma

    In the army training,there is a passing out parade for cadets who are completing the course.The literal sense is conveyed in the example.That speaks .Revert is an abomination.I used see it in every letter during my service in the bank.’Only’ is an adverb.Readers Digest long ago gave a sentence to a class of students to be qualified with ‘only’.Say,He slapped me on my face.Use only before every word and get as many meanings.But springs up commonly like ‘you see’,’you know’ and it has given rise to another peculiarity.People have freedom to say,’But me no buts’.Lord Macaulay,I pity you.In your lofty arrogance you said ‘teach these natives our language’.Now BBC has a program called ‘Chosen tongue’.Somewhere I remember to have read the origin of this archaic word ,rather,expression OK.Some captain of a ship gave signals for his vessel to sail ahead on the voyage after he kayoed or ……….Like a radio signal that gives permission.I am not on the firm ground here. What has given Wordsworth inspiration to write  an Ode,the word has come to mean communication.And the combination, as said in the example, of revert and intimate is atrocious. Come to needful.This ubiquitous word is the life of all correspondence from my bank.This and revert will be there whether a clerk drafts the letter or the chief does it.Even if the clerk omits them,his chief will bring them back. There are others like What I mean etc etc.
    This angst was there even with Richard II. That is why he tells ‘Oh uncle, for heaven ,sake speak noble words’.
    Indians took the language from the Englishmen and made it their own.That is why there is a section called Indian English.
    Let me round it off with an anecdote from R.K.Narayan’s ‘My dateless diary’. In it, Narayan doesn’t turn up for a party an American lady hosts.His friend ,again a lady,tells this American  that he he has developed fever and hence could not come.This gave fodder to the American host for a long time to ask Narayan,’So you developed fever.Does anyone develop fever?’.

    • http://whatho.in what ho!

      ha ha… this is too funny! cheers

  • Appa Amma

    In the army training,there is a passing out parade for cadets who are completing the course.The literal sense is conveyed in the example.That speaks .Revert is an abomination.I used see it in every letter during my service in the bank.'Only' is an adverb.Readers Digest long ago gave a sentence to a class of students to be qualified with 'only'.Say,He slapped me on my face.Use only before every word and get as many meanings.But springs up commonly like 'you see','you know' and it has given rise to another peculiarity.People have freedom to say,'But me no buts'.Lord Macaulay,I pity you.In your lofty arrogance you said 'teach these natives our language'.Now BBC has a program called 'Chosen tongue'.Somewhere I remember to have read the origin of this archaic word ,rather,expression OK.Some captain of a ship gave signals for his vessel to sail ahead on the voyage after he kayoed or ……….Like a radio signal that gives permission.I am not on the firm ground here. What has given Wordsworth inspiration to write  an Ode,the word has come to mean communication.And the combination, as said in the example, of revert and intimate is atrocious. Come to needful.This ubiquitous word is the life of all correspondence from my bank.This and revert will be there whether a clerk drafts the letter or the chief does it.Even if the clerk omits them,his chief will bring them back. There are others like What I mean etc etc.
    This angst was there even with Richard II. That is why he tells 'Oh uncle, for heaven ,sake speak noble words'.
    Indians took the language from the Englishmen and made it their own.That is why there is a section called Indian English.
    Let me round it off with an anecdote from R.K.Narayan's 'My dateless diary'. In it, Narayan doesn't turn up for a party an American lady hosts.His friend ,again a lady,tells this American  that he he has developed fever and hence could not come.This gave fodder to the American host for a long time to ask Narayan,'So you developed fever.Does anyone develop fever?'.

  • Daraius

    I liked it intimately only OK.

    • http://whatho.in what ho!

      Waiting for your revert on the felicitating bit :)

      • http://wabbster.com Pradeep

        OK. Who only would facilitate the felicitation but? Please do the needful only and then revert.

      • http://whatho.in What Ho!

        I must warn you that this will not be issueless ..

  • Bhuvana Balaji

    Hilarious !!   you left out 'all of you all' – I never understood why and how this phrase came about but. LOL.  I need to check with my kids about a few words/phrases that (ONLY) they found really funny and revert back to you.  Coming from a land with different connotations to those words, they were ready to pass out from laughing.  You will be intimated through email, OK? 

    • http://whatho.in what ho!

      All of y'all, thanks for reading and high praise!

  • Appa Amma

    Felicitate is to offer good wishes.Felicity is the stae of being happy.It is a formal term.Congratulations is an intimate term.While I offer my felicitations to you,I am congratulating  you for coming up with such trademarks of the english speaking indians.

    • http://whatho.in what ho!

      thank you, thank you!! please keep reading and writing back.. 

  • Shankar R

    That was hilarious. I can think of a few more in matrimonial ads such as, non-consummated marriage, no encumbrances, wheatish, homely and would-be.
    In addition to felicitation, I can think of 'rustication' which I have not come across anywhere else in the world.
    A good compilation of Indian phrases is given here- http://www.vsubhash.com/Dictionary_Of_Indian_Engl

    • http://whatho.in what ho!

      Rusticate is a beauty! For the longest time, there was some confusion that it meant being expelled from college and then dispatched to a rustic setting like Anna Nagar :-)

      • Shankar R

         Yes, you are partly right about Anna Nagar being a rustic setting :)
        Another example I can think of is 'centum' or 'cent per cent'..

      • http://whatho.in what ho!

        Centum is another beaut. Shankar, given your treasure trove of Indianisms, perhaps you should consider authoring a sequel to this? You def.ly have some good ones in your bag!

    • Vivek
  • Gkumar_67

    Enjoyed reading this. I use some of these phrases, though !

    • http://whatho.in what ho!

      Thank you! Use them often and spray them around like cluster bombs in Iraq, we say!

  • G.N. Balakrishnan

    Very interesting, but how true. Reg  No 4, (OK), I remember Fowlers  quotation for a similar English usage. He says "Quite right is all right : All right is quite right: but quite alright is quite all wrong". DOING THE NEEDFUL  and REVERT has now become main staple in all official correspondence and also in  most of our Govt correspondence also. We Indians innovate anything and every thing. No wonder, ENGLISH  has become one of their victims.

    • http://whatho.in what ho!

      Once Indians were the victims of English. Now the wheel has turned :-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000325748462 Uma Chandra

    totally 'phrased out' by indian 'inglish'. i literally 'passed out' at the verge of completing my education! 'but', i must say indians have a 'knack of' surviving a foreign language audience with their extremely creative use of inglish. its an all-in-one package deal – the 'foreigner' is hospitably treated with communication in her/his own tongue as well as entertained. now, that is a rare service to receive in any part of this world. 'in fact' even within india, we might be able to build regional lexicons containing words/phrases unique to a local culture.
    i'm happy to have forgotten most of the english spoken at school — i believe i had to unlearn a lot actually. but for some reason i still remember friends referring each other with this suffix by adding it freely after every sentence or word -'what ya?' 'tell ya', 'teacher is calling you, ya' & so forth… but even today an american would be confused if you answered her 'No, Ya':-) are you saying 'yes' or 'no'?
    another practice is hybridization of two languages to come up with a completely new outlook- eg. 'simplify' is a real word in english. indians have mastered the art of 'englifying' vernacular. eg. if u didn't know how to say 'massage it on u'r scalp' you'd say 'thechify on u'r head' or 'pottufy' for  'put it' in tamil. someone i knew long back at work – although he was an american, every now and then his hindian legacy would catch up with him during his most as well as worst sociable moods. during those moments he would liberally adulterate english with hindi and come up with torturous hybrids — perhaps an innovative way to hand the pink slip over. biz presentation 'slide wide', 'phone shone', 'text wext' and many more — one day out of habit i asked back 'outline shoutline chahiye?' and bit my tongue in regret.

    rofl! a very funny and 'thought provoking' article again from lg! kugw – keep up the good work.

    • http://whatho.in what ho!

      Ha ha.. the outline shoutline is just too much.. there you go. I just used another one of those .. 

  • Shankar R

    Regarding 6, "only" was not used inappropriately by Chennaiites at least till the early 1990s. It was only after influence on local culture by other Indians that the corruption of its usage occurred.  Talk about the perils of globalization!
    In fact, I was shocked to hear the incorrect usage for the first time in 1991, when I had a roommate from Bangalore in the US. Which probably means I had not come across it in Chennai till 1990.

    • http://whatho.in what ho!

      See comment above about a 10 phrases, part deux – from Shankar? please oblige..

  • G.N. Balakrishnan

    There is another English word wrongly used in Tamil conversations, especially in Tamil movies. Recently, in one movie , one of the characters says in Tamil ” assaulta irukathe”, meaning “dont be careless” or in another instance, the same word ASSAULT is used with a different meaning. Here,”assault” is used in the sense of “Effortlessly” . The sentence is something like this. “Athai assaulta mudichiduvan” (He will complete it effortlessly.

    • http://whatho.in what ho!

      effortlessly they assault the language, our ears and our senses in the general :-)

  • G.N. Balakrishnan

    There is another English word wrongly used in Tamil conversations, especially in Tamil movies. Recently, in one movie , one of the characters says in Tamil " assaulta irukathe", meaning "dont be careless" or in another instance, the same word ASSAULT is used with a different meaning. Here,"assault" is used in the sense of "Effortlessly" . The sentence is something like this. "Athai assaulta mudichiduvan" (He will complete it effortlessly.

  • Rajasekharamkakani

    Excellent read.  And how about this: “I’ll return back …”. I think it is high time someone comes out with a dictionary of Indian English (if not already done)

    • http://whatho.in what ho!

      Thanks! Please do return back and keep reading! :-)

  • Rajasekharamkakani

    Here’s another instance I read just now on rediffmail,com:

    “Chennai train crash: Driver over speeded, says preliminary probe”http://www.rediff.com/news/report/chennai-train-crash-driver-over-speeded-says-preliminary-probe/20110914.htm

    • http://whatho.in what ho!

      that's funny .. "over speeding" is a classic Indianism.. seems to be a particular favorite of Times of India writers

  • Rajasekharamkakani

    Excellent read.  And how about this: "I'll return back …". I think it is high time someone comes out with a dictionary of Indian English (if not already done)

  • Rajasekharamkakani

    Here's another instance I read just now on rediffmail,com:

    "Chennai train crash: Driver over speeded, says preliminary probe"http://www.rediff.com/news/report/chennai-train-crash-driver-over-speeded-says-preliminary-probe/20110914.htm

  • g srinivasan

    Good collection. I try very much to rectify some of the mistakes committed by my students. But what about the errors in pronunciation? Have u ever hear of a CURT AND RIGHT person. This is a very popular phrase in Tamilnadu. It is supposed to mean a very strict and honest person who cannot be lured to do something that he thinks wrong. The correct pronunciation is CUT AND DRIED.

    • http://whatho.in What Ho!

      Yes, Sir. It's "cut and dried." Thank you for your reading and commenting! Pronunciation is a whole different ball game, as English, at the end of the day, is not our native tongue. We should be forgiven for the transgressions on that front, don't you think? :-)

  • User

    How about these?

    'co-brother' , 'same to you' (wish you the same), 'thanks very much', 'prepone', 'goodname', 'one and all', 'I am telling', The three of you all in back bench, get up… etc.

  • http://www.ash-aqua-girl.blogspot.com/ Ashwini C N

    We Indians butcher the language as per our whims and fancies !Good one :-) I recently wrote a post on INglish : Indian English, on similar lines, do check it if you can :-)

  • Vinod

    Loved it

    • http://whatho.in What Ho!

      :) Thanks..

  • Pingback: Indian Inglish – Part Deux

  • K Singh

    Off the top of my head, and I know there’s sooo many more:
    i’m “shifting” to the new “flat”
    “last to last” week
    Don’t even get me started on the ONLY: “then only I decided”
    “open your hair”
    “shut the light”
    happy birthday “many happy returns of the day”
    “get set go”
    doubling words in two such as “yes yes”, “no no” “very very happy”
    “gave” 4 exams in 1 week
    “rubbish” “dust bin” instead of trash can
    “role number” meaning your student number
    “curd” instead of yogurt