The actor Will Smith, while being interviewed on the TV show Inside the Actors Studio, talked about how his grandmother often corrected him saying, “A ‘yawl’ is a boat!” She was, of course, referring to the popular pronoun “Y’all” that is used by many Americans. It is an expression which, when I first arrived in the United States, proved to be the tip of my linguistic iceberg. Despite having grown up on a more than healthy diet of American television and film, I often found myself scratching my head when an Americanism was thrown at me.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve laughed a great deal at Indian English. I’m sure Americans and other native English language speakers would find themselves in fits over signs in India that say “Tire puncher shop”, or when people ask them to use the “backside” entrance to a building. The thing is, I didn’t really expect to be surprised as often as I am in this country, by some rather remarkable, certainly unique words and expressions.
For instance, one summer, when I worked as an intern for an advertising agency, a colleague of mine had a bowl full of my favourite peppermints on her desk. I politely asked if I could take one. To which she replied, with a warm smile, “Knock yourself out!” I remember staring. My imagination went into overdrive – were they pills, rather than peppermints? Were they capable of rendering me unconscious? Without touching them, I went quietly back to my desk.
To be fair, I have an incurable case of Over politeness. I went on for years thinking that a “rain check” was a very wet piece of paper that people took for some reason when they wished to postpone something. When I finally Googled the phrase, I discovered that it originated in the 1800s, and refers to the practice of giving baseball game ticket holders a pass to a game that must be rescheduled due to weather.
And when people cried “Shotgun!” and scrambled into the front passenger seat of a car, I jumped several feet into the air and looked frantically around for a madman carrying a weapon. Another common American expression I am embarrassed to not have understood properly is “jump the gun”. As idiotic as it seems now, I sincerely imagined a person physically jumping over a rifle as part of some obscure tradition, before Google came to my rescue again and I discovered that it had to do with starting a track race before the gun (or pistol) has been fired.
Once, a concerned friend put her hand on my shoulder and asked me, “Are you mad?” and in my agitated state, I absent-mindedly (and vehemently) assured her that I most certainly was not and what did she mean by asking me that anyway? I can’t even begin to describe how utterly alien I feel when it comes to food. I once overheard a cookery show playing on my neighbour’s TV in which it appeared that a popular African- American TV talk show hostess was being seasoned with vinegar and placed in a pre-heated oven. And that, dear friends, was how I learned the word “okra”.
The same goes for bell peppers, eggplant and cilantro. Suddenly, I felt like my baigan bharta was straight out of a Michelin star chef’s menu – tender eggplant, smoked over a slow fire, tossed with onions, bell pepper and spices, topped with cilantro. Points to American English for such delectable ingredient names!
I wish I could say the same about my time as a student. My university friends would speak of “hitting the books”, many of them “could care less” about some issues, and were often “bummed” when a team lost. I nodded along quietly, and did my best to replace words like “cutlery” with “flatware” in my mental dictionary. Of course, now and then, when no Americans were watching, I would allow myself to laugh.
When I showed my grandfather around the campus, he and I guffawed together at the warning written in bright red letters over the emergency exits that proclaimed “This door is alarmed”. And we chuckled at another sign at a local diner that read, “Free Kids”. Don’t tell anyone, but the phrase that makes me stifle my laughter most is “touch base”. I know it has to do with baseball, but really, it still sounds, shall we say, indecorous. Wouldn’t you agree?
Right. Enough shenanigans. Alrighty, then. See y’all later.