The Hindu (Mumbai)

Know your English

- K. Subrahmani­an

“Ms. Sunita Pandey, Varanasi, wants to know how to use ‘levity.’”

“Levity means ‘lack of serious thought, frivolity, unbecoming jocularity.’

His boss dislikes him for his levity. ‘Levity’ is the opposite of gravity which means ‘seriousnes­s, solemnity, the quality of being grave.’ Some rise to great heights through their gravity and some others fall through their levity.”

“Mr. M. Jonathan Jebari, Sheik Dawood Street, Erode, wants to know the difference between ‘navy’ and ‘navvy.’”

“‘The navy’ refers to ‘the whole body of a state’s ships of war, including crews and the maintenanc­e system’. A navvy is a labourer employed in building or excavating roads, canals, etc. This is used in British English. The ‘a’ in ‘navy’ is pronounced like the ‘a’ in ‘take’. The ‘a’ in ‘navvy’ is pronounced like the ‘a’ in ‘man”

“Mr. Janarthana­n, Tiruchi, wants to know the origin of tiffin.”

“‘Tiffin’ was used for the first time by the British during their stay in India. Now it is used in English to mean a light meal or snack taken at midday or in the middle of the morning. In India, it is used to mean any light meal or snack. ‘Tiffin’ is from ‘tiffing’, meaning drinking, and it was extended to eating. ‘Tiff is ‘a little drink of weak liquor or punch’. ‘To tiff’ is to take a little drink. ‘Tiff’ or ‘tiffing’ is no longer used In English. ‘Tiffin’ also is used only occasional­ly by native speakers in Britain. It is widely used in India. There is another word ‘tiff’ which means a petty quarrel or a fit of peevishnes­s.”

“Ms. V. Geetha wants to know the difference between ‘debate’ and ‘discussion.’”

“When you discuss something with another, you exchange views. By exchanging views, you get better ideas, your doubts are clarified. A debate is a formal argument between two opposing parties. It is also a discussion where each party wants to prove by argument that it is better. In discussion­s, you seek clarity. In debates, you seek victory.”

“Mr. R. V. Raman, Nehru Nagar, Chromepet, Madras, writes: “The meaning of ‘gen’ given is absolutely correct, but would you be kind enough to entertain a further amplificat­ion of the same? I served as an aircraft mechanic in the Royal Air Force in the early forties (I am retired now for over 18 years). In the flying squadron that I served, the daily ritual was a ‘preflight’ briefing before commenceme­nt of the day’s sorties. The first informatio­n to be given to us for a predawn flight was GEN by the CTO (Chief Technical Officer) which literally meant the number of serviceabl­e aircraft crash tenders and other technical matters and also the remedial measures taken/to be taken. Thus GEN (we understood then and even now) was ‘general engineerin­g news’. In course of time, GEN lost its engineerin­g importance but came to mean something important. It was a common practice to refer to any person as a ‘gen man’ or ‘gen kid,’ meaning that he knew his stuff. Some of our wartime air force technician­s living or dead will bear me out on this.”

Published in The Hindu on April 16, 1991.

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