mus­ing over trivia

Ex­am­in­ing some ex­pres­sions, say­ings and be­liefs.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - MUSIC - By DR LIM CHIN LAM

ONE of my lunchtime kaki (lo­cal lingo for “en­thu­si­ast, buddy, crony”) has an al­most para­noid mis­trust of food and drinks in gen­eral. He oc­ca­sion­ally makes provoca­tive pro­nounce­ments, I think, for the sheer hell of start­ing an ar­gu­ment. One ex­am­ple: “Coca Cola is cor­ro­sive. It can even dis­solve a nail.” Not want­ing to get into an ar­gu­ment – “You can­not win an ar­gu­ment,” so wrote Dale Carnegie in his book How To Win Friends And In­flu­ence Peo­ple – I put two small nails into a glass of the bev­er­age. It has been four months and the nails are still in­tact. No, this find­ing is not an en­dorse­ment for Coca Cola! It only cau­tions us not to ac­cept with­out ques­tion what is said or writ­ten.

Cog­i­tat­ing over com­mon ex­pres­sions, say­ings and be­liefs can be en­ter­tain­ing, even ed­i­fy­ing. Let me il­lus­trate with a few ex­am­ples.

Do mos­qui­toes bite?

Mos­qui­toes do not bite. They do not have mouth-parts for bit­ing. In­stead they have a pro­boscis which the fe­male uses to pierce into mam­mals to get a blood meal to nour­ish their eggs. Note that only the fe­males “bite”. (In­ci­den­tally, an­other crea­ture, the fe­male spi­der, eats its part­ner im­me­di­ately af­ter mat­ing – and that is why the mos­quito and the spi­der, amongst other an­i­mals, give rise to the say­ing that the fe­male of the species is more deadly than the male!) More than be­ing a nui­sance, the mos­quito, depend­ing on genus and species, trans­mits dis­eases such as malaria and dengue. On a lighter note, I have made one ob­ser­va­tion: the mos­qui­toes in my house have no man­ners – they “bite” with­out first ask­ing for per­mis­sion!

Can a pond glow?

You may have heard an en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist say­ing that “that pond is so pol­luted that it glows in the dark”. In lo­cal lingo I ask, “Can or not?” A pond may hint of an oc­ca­sional flare or flash of light in the night be­cause of the prob­a­ble spark­ing of marsh gas (i.e. meth­ane,

What is an ag­i­tated fe­male horse do­ing out in the open on a stormy night? which is pro­duced nat­u­rally by the de­com­po­si­tion of veg­e­ta­tion un­der marshy con­di­tions); or the pond may glit­ter ow­ing to the pres­ence of fire­flies (which, more com­monly, are as­so­ci­ated with cer­tain man­grove trees). A pond may un­doubt­edly gleam or glit­ter or glim­mer or shim­mer or sparkle when head­lights of pass­ing mo­tor­cars glance off its sur­face. But glow? No – ex­cept, per­haps, when the pond is pol­luted with ra­dioac­tive sludge.

Chang­ing tack

Hey, what have the above ex­am­ples to do with English? None what­so­ever. They are a con­se­quence of “ram­bling with­out pur­pose” (par­don the re­dun­dancy). At this junc­ture, it is meet to change tack and re­vert to the MOE mode. Let us cog­i­tate over a few ex­am­ples to un­cover some facets of the English lan­guage and its gram­mar.

In (the) light of …

For some time I had won­dered why the above ex­pres­sion – which means “tak­ing into ac­count, con­sid­er­ing” – is said or writ­ten both with and with­out the def­i­nite ar­ti­cle. I then found that “in the light of” is the form used in Bri­tish English, while “in light of” is the us­age in Amer­i­can English ( Ox­ford Ad­vanced Learner’s Dic­tio­nary, 2010). Now I won­der why the ex­pres­sion is so worded (e.g. He rewrote the book in the light of fur­ther re­search) even though a non-con­crete noun like “re­search” – un­like the sun, the moon, and the stars – does not emit or re­flect light. Yet it can shed light (e.g. Fur­ther re­search shed light on her an­tag­o­nism to­wards her adop­tive par­ents). Go fig­ure ...

Un­cles and aunts

Con­cise Ox­ford English Dic­tio­nary de­fines un­cle as “the brother of one’s fa­ther or mother or the hus­band of one’s aunt”, and aunt as “the sis­ter of one’s fa­ther or mother or the wife of one’s un­cle” and, in­for­mally, as “as an un­re­lated adult fe­male friend of a child’s par­ents”. Among English-speak­ing peo­ple, the terms are used to ad­dress fam­ily mem­bers re­lated as de­fined above – and, specif­i­cally with added names, as in Un­cle Bob and Aunt (or Aunty) Mary. Out­side the fam­ily cir­cle, the terms are also used but in a limited way, for close adult friends of one’s par­ents.

In Malaysia, the us­age is more in­ter­est­ing. Among the Malay com­mu­nity, un­cle is pak­cik (a blend of ba­pak ke­cil, “lit­tle fa­ther”), and aunt is mak­cik (a blend of emak ke­cil, “lit­tle mother”). With the ad­di­tion of a name, the form of ad­dress is short­ened to merely pak or mak, as in Pak Lah (short for Pak­cik Ab­dul­lah) or MakTimah (short for Mak­cik Fa­timah). The form of ad­dress be­comes more in­ti­mate when the name of the rel­a­tive is re­placed by or­der of birth, e.g. PakLong (for un­cle who is first­born, su­long, in his gen­er­a­tion), MakN­gah (for aunt who is mid­dle­born, ten­gah, in her gen­er­a­tion), and MakSu (for aunt who is youngest, bongsu, in her gen­er­a­tion).

Among the Chi­nese, the forms of ad­dress are even more elab­o­rate. There are spe­cial terms used: (1) for an un­cle on the fa­ther’s side (and for the cor­re­spond­ing aunt re­lated by mar­riage to the un­cle); (2) for an aunt on the fa­ther’s side (and for the cor­re­spond­ing un­cle re­lated by mar­riage to the aunt); (3) for an un­cle on the mother’s side (and for the cor­re­spond­ing aunt re­lated by mar­riage to the un­cle); and (4) for an aunt on the mother’s side (and for the cor­re­spond­ing un­cle re­lated by mar­riage to the aunt). The terms be­come more spe­cific when the type of re­la­tion­ship of un­cle or aunt is fur­ther af­fixed with the or­der of his/her birth, e.g. No.2 Un­cle on the mother’s side; and his wife, No.2 Aunt, mar­ried to No.2 Un­cle on the mother’s side – and so on and so forth. The types of re­la­tion­ship be­come even more var­ied when said in the dif­fer­ent Chi­nese di­alects (Hokkien, Can­tonese, etc.).

Phew! That took some mus­ing! Any­way, we Malaysians – whether speak­ing in English or in one or other of the lo­cal lan­guages (Malay, Chi­nese, Tamil, etc.) – use un­cle or aun­tie as a po­lite way of ad­dress­ing our el­ders, even though not re­lated in any way. Hmmm, it’s our very own com­mend­able cus­tom – a Malaysian first?

Which is the star­board side?

The sides of a ship are known by the terms fore (the front part), aft (the rear­most part), port (the left side), and star­board (the right side, fac­ing away from port side). I was won­der­ing about the term star­board side? That would be the side fac­ing the stars, i.e. fac­ing up­wards. I’m still won­der­ing whether the ship must be tilted side­ways to make such ori­en­ta­tion pos­si­ble.

Do djinns ex­ist?

I was amused by a re­cent re­port ( New Sun­day Times, Oct 10, page 8) on the cap­ture of djinns. I re­pro­duce the fol­low­ing ex­cerpt: “... the ‘cul­prits’ (djinns) had been cap­tured and im­pris­oned in spe­cial con­tain­ers (by two bo­moh) ... The bo­moh said that the sealed con­tain­ers would be thrown into the sea so that the djinns would not bother any­one again.” I have com­ments on the fol­low­ing: (1) djinn, al­ter­na­tively spelt as jinn, mean­ing “an in­tel­li­gent spirit, in Ara­bian and Mus­lim mythol­ogy, able to ap­pear in hu­man and an­i­mal form” ( Con­cise Ox­ford English Dic­tio­nary): a djinn is re­lated to ge­nie, which COED de­fines thus: “(in Ara­bian folk­lore) a jinn or spirit, es­pe­cially one im­pris­oned within a bot­tle or oil lamp and ca­pa­ble of grant­ing wishes when sum­moned”; (2) bo­moh: this Malay word for a medicine man has not en­tered the English dic­tio­nary, so that it should prop­erly be ital­i­cised but it is rightly used here as sin­gu­lar and plu­ral like in its orig­i­nal lan­guage; and (3) im­pris­on­ment within con­tainer: the bo­moh im­pris­oned the djinns in what looked like or­di­nary wide-mouthed glass jars with twist-on caps and cast them into the sea pre­sum­ably to im­mo­bilise them.

How gullible are we? Do djinns ex­ist? Would or­di­nary glass jars which are not vac­uum-sealed not float in the sea, be buf­feted by wind and storm, and break up on rocky shores to re­lease the djinns? Would the lib­er­ated djinns then be able to wreak havoc and bring about the end of the world in 1912 (as pre­dicted by the Mayan cal­en­dar)? [Note: I know – my mind has ram­bled too far!]


If there is a night­mare, there must be a day­mare too? No. “Night­mare” is a com­pound of night in the usual sense and mare, not a fe­male horse but an Old English word mean­ing “in­cubus” (an evil spirit in male form sup­posed to de­scend upon sleep­ing women to have sex­ual in­ter­course with them).

Clos­ing re­marks

I think I have won­dered enough for now, hav­ing wan­dered suf­fi­ciently far and wide to make my point. Read­ers may con­tinue and in­dulge in their own rever­ies with ex­am­ples of their own.

(Ac­cord­ing to Life of Nel­son, Robert Southey.) Robert Burns (1759-1796) “Don’t let the awk­ward squad fire over me.” Nancy As­tor (1879-1964) “Jakie, is it my birth­day or am I dy­ing?” To her son on her deathbed. John Le Mesurier (1912-1983) “It’s all been rather lovely.” Henry James (1843-1916) “Tell the boys to fol­low, to be faith­ful, to take me se­ri­ously.” John Sedg­wick (1813-1864) “They couldn’t hit an ele­phant at this dis­tance.” Sec­onds later he was shot dead by sharp­shoot­ers at the bat­tle of Spot­syl­va­nia in the Amer­i­can civil war. Ken­neth Wil­liams (1926-1988) “Oh, what’s the bloody point.” His last diary en­try.

– © Guardian News & Me­dia 2010


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