ABOUT a decade ago, a book sales agent approached me with a handful of books, fat and healthy, offering a big discount only for the day. He handed out the Oxford Dictionary of Difficult Words, edited by Archie Hobson. As he insisted on my buying the book at the discounted rate, I took the book from him.
I opened it, as he kept staring, and after a quick look through the first page under the head of A, I told him that the page contains 19 words and I, then, knew 18 of them but for ‘abecedarian’. How could that be a dictionary of difficult words? The man turned and went away, looking for someone else who could be willing.
I did not buy that, that time, for obvious reasons. I have a plenty of dictionaries, translation and monolingual, for 20 languages, about a quarter thousand filling quite a few racks of my bookshelves. I bought them as I need a few of them to consult regularly, a few quite occasionally and the rest rarely. I love collecting dictionaries, storehouses of words, as a hobby.
Much later, I found 1000 Most Obscure Words, edited by Norman W Schur, an Indian print, at a shop at the New Market which was giving it out for a quarter the original price as the spine came off, some pages were dog-eared and the cover was slightly moth-eaten. I bought it and had it re-bound so that it can last my lifetime.
On first opening the page, not deliberately, in the P section, I stumbled on the entry of phrontistery, a beautiful word both in meaning and sound — a noun meaning ‘a thinking place.’ The word has its origin in the Greek word ‘phrontisterion’, from ‘phrontistes’, a thinker, from ‘phroneein’, which means to think.
I still have the book somewhere sandwiched between other books, but I could never use the word. I should not ever. Until my university days in the late 1980s, I thought that it was highly unlikely that I would come across, in my daily life, the word ‘impecuniary’ that I learnt when I was in secondary school. But I did. In a seminar that the department of English organised on Indian English or Anglo-Indian literature at the British Council in Dhaka, in the early 1990s, where SM Ali, then editor of the Daily Star, with which I began my journey into the newsroom in 1993, was to chair a session. Khan Sarwar Murshid, who was SM Ali’s teacher, and also mine, was sitting on the front row.
Too incommoding it was for SM Ali. The session’s chair stood up and apologised for having to sit on the stage while KSM, as we knew him in the department, was in the audience. He requested KSM to speak first and KSM, in punjabi and shawl in the winter afternoon, started reminiscing memories of him with SM Ali sometime in the past in London. Khan Sarwar Murshid used the word ‘impecuniary’, which means ‘having to relation to money’, to my delight and surprise, and a bit pride too.
Words are never dead. ‘A word is dead | When it is said’, wrote Emily Dickinson in ‘A word is dead’, ‘Some say, | I say it just | Begins to live | That day.’ They just drop out of currency or fall into disuse. This is true with words of all types — difficult words and obscure words. But they never die. Once they get into dictionaries, they remain there for ages, being obsolescent and, the obsolete. But people revive them, rarely to stay in currency and generally to fall back into disuse again.
A news report that New Age printed on its back page on February 4, headlined ‘Campaign to revive missing Bangla words launched’ and provided by the United News of Bangladesh was important enough, especially in February when in 1952 people of the then East Bengal became martyrs for their right to mother tongue, to draw attention.
The word ‘missing’, however, appears to be a travesty of translation. Something can go missing, yet something may appear to be missing, still not having existed in the visible past. The title as it was given in Bangla or report as it was printed in Bangla newspapers that time suggests that a correct translation would be ‘In search of lost words.’
It is a campaign that a multinational company launched as a marketing ploy on the occasion of Ekushey February, Shahid Dibas or Martyrs’ Day, which has now become globally known as International Mother Language Day after a 1999 UNSECO endorsement.
The campaign, under the guidance of professor emeritus Anisuzzaman, who is also president of the Bangla Academy, aims at creating, as the report says, awareness of the issue that many Bangla words that once used to enrich the language are missing and to encourage people to help to make them popular again. The campaign also holds a display of the words which were in use but have now been ‘missing’.
The campaign expects people to submit ‘missing’ or ‘less used’ Bangla words on the company’s web site for the compilation into a volume for publication at a later date. The web site of the company, as of Tuesday morning, shows a little more than 5,000 words having been submitted. The entries include ‘khela’, game, ‘panta’, rice soaked in water overnight, ‘achamka’, abruptly ‘labh’, profit, etc. The recency of the words that people tried to pass off as ‘missing’ or lost words would seem like a reminder to the Oxford Dictionary of Difficult Words anecdote.
But a careful look at the entries brings up nothing but a general apathy of people towards Bangla these days. Many of the words are in such a vigorous currency in our daily lives that their submission speaks of the submitters not being habituated to using Bangla. The less said about how the entries spell, the better. Yet a survey such as this with demographic and education statistics could enlighten the nation about the state which it is in in terms of language issues.
What is the point of all this then? Words are never lost. They earn their permanent place once they could get into dictionaries. They fall out of currency. In a Dickinsonian way, just saying them may be their coming back to life that time. But for how many days?
Language is a juggernaut-like system. Nothing can be added to it and nothing can be removed from it, not from one register to another, even in decades through conscious efforts. ‘Onchla’ is a Bangla word for ‘rubbish’. It has fallen out of currency long ago. ‘Nasikandham’ is the word for who snores. Why does someone need to try — even trying is a bolder word here — to put them back into currency? Would anyone use them any more but for the purpose of marketing gimmick of multinational companies?
Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age.
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