Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Let's Prepone the Tiffin: I Have to Air-Dash!

Last Sunday I responded to an intriguing question from a reader of the New York Times Magazine "On Language" column, dealing with a meaning of the word revert that was previously unfamiliar to me. As I discovered, revert can mean "reply" in a number of varieties of world English, particularly the English of the Indian subcontinent. But revert is hardly the only English word that has moved on a special trajectory in Indian English.

Investigating the "reply" meaning of revert (as in "Please revert to me with the information"), I learned that the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (OALD) has added this usage to its newly released eighth edition, marking it as Indian English. I followed up with Alison Waters, publishing manager for English Language Training dictionaries at Oxford University Press. She informed me that the OALD editors introduced entries from different strains of "world English" in the dictionary's seventh edition, published in 2005, and that the eighth edition includes numerous updates. It makes sense for the OALD to take an inclusive approach to world English, given the immense global market for learner's dictionaries of English, particularly in India.

By labeling certain words and senses as "Indian English," the OALD clarifies when usage does not extend widely to other varieties of English. "Indian English" encompasses words derived from Hindi and other languages on the subcontinent (e.g., ayah, babu, dacoit, lakh, nawab, and wallah), as well as English words that have developed their own history in India like revert. Here are some of the other Indian English senses that have been added to the eighth edition of the OALD (and see this wordlist for further examples):

  • avail: to make use of something, especially an opportunity or offer: "To avail all these benefits, just register online." "Why not avail of our special offers?"
  • encounter: an incident in which police shoot dead a suspected criminal: "The two gangsters were later killed in a police encounter."
  • ply: to travel regularly along a particular route or between two particular places
  • ramp: the long stage that models walk on during a fashion show (catwalk, runway)

The OALD notes that the traveling sense of ply can be found in other varieties of English, but typically in literary usage. Similarly, tiffin, meaning "a small meal, especially lunch," would be considered "old-fashioned" outside of South Asia, but in Indian English it survivies without any such stigma.

Another addition to the eighth edition of the OALD is petrol bunk, meaning "a petrol station," an example of how Indian English can create compounds of common English words invested with special meanings. Here are some other Indian English compounds found in the OALD:

  • air-dash: to go somewhere by plane suddenly and/or quickly: "The minister air-dashed to Delhi because of the parliamentary crisis."
  • batchmate: a person who is or was in the same year group as you at school or college
  • chargesheet: to accuse somebody formally of committing an offence and to ask for an official reply or defence
  • cousin brother: a male cousin of your own generation
  • incharge: the person who is officially responsible for a department, etc.
  • joint family: a family structure in which grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins are considered as a single unit living in one house
  • lunch home: a restaurant
  • solar cooker: a container for cooking food that uses heat from the sun
  • speed breaker: a speed hump
  • undertrial: a person who has been charged with a crime

My favorite item in the Indian English lexicon is prepone, meaning "to move something to an earlier time than was originally planned," the opposite of postpone. The Oxford English Dictionary has examples from 1913, but in the past few decades it has been mostly restricted to India. I echo the sentiment of Languagehat: "the word is listed in a dictionary, it's well formed, and it's unquestionably useful; I hereby welcome it to the English vocabulary!" It's true that some examples of Indian English, like revert meaning "reply," might be a bit baffling to outsiders, but a wonderful word like prepone reminds us of the richness of world English. Let's revel in it.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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