Sunday, October 18, 2015

What's in a Name?

In the biblical story of creation, we are told that the first task God gave Adam was to name everything that was around him. Adam was to come up with a word for everything. But are names or words all that important? Each name is just a representation of an object and even if you alter its name, the object remains the same. Or as Shakespeare elegantly puts it, "That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet."

But would it? After centuries of usage, words do carry connotations of their own. I won't forget a function I attended many years ago as a student. I was seated next to an Indian lady who introduced herself to me as Dr Nalla Tan. The name immediately rang a bell. I asked her if she was the Dr Nalla Tan who wrote books on puberty for prepubescent children. I told her that my father got me one of her books just as I was entering the cusp of puberty. She asked me which book of hers I had read for she had written several. Without a moment's hesitation, I replied, "Below the Navel". She gave me a look of annoyance and replied coldly, "It's BEYOND the Navel".

I remember blushing to the roots of my hair as I muttered my apology. There's very little one could say to an author whose respectable book for children to learn about their own bodies had, with a single word, been turned into something of the same genre as Harold Robbins' or Sydney Sheldon's raunchy novels. We didn't say much to each other after that and I'm not sure now whether it was because the function had started or the iciness with which she greeted my faux pas had chilled the milk of human kindness within her.

A single word could change the whole evening's atmosphere. But I really wasn't to blame. I wasn't being flippant. I had thought all along that the title of the book was Below the Navel. The book, as I recall, had drawings of the human anatomy and to my adolescent mind and I couldn't be faulted there, it was all about the region below the navel. It didn't once occur to me that the title of the book was really BEYOND the Navel.

As luck would have it, my knack of ruining an evening with a single word continued well into my adulthood. I was at a dinner with my wife and we were seated at a table consisting of visiting professors from the UK and a married couple of Chinese descent who were Singaporeans. The table conversation somehow drifted to stories of King James I of England and I regaled everyone at the table with an interesting story I had read about King James and a young man of athletic build. The Chinese woman found it hard to believe that James I was homosexual and she said, "Well, that's not in MY history book", to which I replied perhaps a little too quickly, "Your history book is probably expurgated".

It was only after the dinner that my wife told me that the woman was furious with me for having said that and she had kept silent for the remainder of the dinner while occasionally staring daggers at me and I had to be really blind not to have noticed it. And I really didn't notice it. My wife explained further that the woman probably misunderstood the word "expurgate" to mean something disparaging when that wasn't my intention. I had merely meant that a decent lady like her would probably not read books replete with accounts of the seedier side of life.

But a single word can sometimes be the cause of fun and laughter. Many years ago, I took an airport terminal train in the US with my wife and just before departure, there was a loud announcement: "This train will depart momentarily." My wife and I looked at each other and we burst into laughter. We were certain the train would depart for just a few seconds and return to where we started from. When I got home, I looked up the dictionary and to my surprise, I discovered that in the US, "momentarily" could also mean "in a moment" and not just "for a moment" which is the meaning of the word anywhere in the world outside America.

The world would be less complicated if Americans spoke English (and didn't invent their own language) and everyone understood what "expurgate" meant and writers of sex education books would just title their books BELOW the Navel as they should since, unless I'm very much mistaken about sex education books, that really is where their focus is.

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