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Charge-sheeting, undertrials, goonda-tax: the papers are rife with this criminal lexicon. Nouns mug verbs, adverbs bump off verbs, adverbs are adjectivised with impunity.

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Crime in seems to necessitate its own linguistic sub-set. On the one hand are the particularly Indian crimes, like ‘eve-teasing’ and ‘dowry-death’; and on the other, particular brands of Indian criminal: dacoit, goonda, dada and rowdy-sheeter. For some reason, in the language of crime there’s often a touch of the archaic—there are gangsters and molls, nabbing of miscreants, netting of rowdies and so on. No matter how violent or heinous the crime, the terminology seems rather quaint.

Hooliganism—as perfected by British football fans—rarely crops up in India, but has an interesting root in the history of
the British Empire in its origin with the Irish surname Houlihan. Goons in Britain and goondas here perform much the
same role—hired muscle—but have entirely different linguistic ancestries.

The crime of ‘mugging’ is rife in the west, and yet, if you talk about a ‘mugger’ in India, you’re more likely to have people
casting about for a freshwater crocodile than a purse-snatching ‘thug’, which, again, is a common English word meaning
a tough or violent man. However, its roots lie in the Sanskrit verb sthagati—to conceal. The dreaded bands of roomal-toting,
kali-worshipping stranglers of the 19th century were renowned as con-men and tricksters but today’s ‘thugs’ have none of
that finesse. They’re simply macho Neanderthals, best summed up as "strong in the arm and thick in the ’ead."

Charge-sheeting, undertrials, goonda-tax: the papers are rife with this criminal lexicon. Nouns mug verbs, adverbs bump off verbs, adverbs are adjectivised with impunity. Mssrs Wren and Martin would somersault in their graves. Perhaps there should be a law against it.


This article originally appeared in Delhi City Limits, March 31, 2006


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