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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Comments from our users:

Tuesday June 8th 2010, 12:37 AM
Comment by: Kaye K. (Tel Aviv Israel)
I love to see our language in transition--thanks for a lighthearted and informative article. I'll definitely prepone my next visit to the VT website!
Tuesday June 8th 2010, 5:12 AM
Comment by: Lynne M. (Brighton United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
In the UK 'tiffin' is still used, but rarely for a meal. Instead it's a concoction of broken biscuits (aka cookies--usually shortbread), chocolate and dried fruits. See, for example: http://www.rampantscotland.com/recipes/blrecipe_tiffin.htm
Tuesday June 8th 2010, 8:19 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I don't know if this is an example of 'Indian English' or 'British English', but it is something I've come across only since I've been communicating with British friends.

Where I would use 'following': Please answer the following letter as soon as possible:

Others use: Please answer the below letter as soon as possible:

When did this use of 'below' enter English, or how long is it that I've been oblivious to it (always a possibility if it wasn't in the sisters lexicon!).

Very interesting, Ben, and handy to know. I love the word 'prepone' but I'm unsure as to what circumstances it would apply to. Do you 'prepone' appointments just as you might 'postpone' them? Doing tasks? Hmmm, so much seems either the same as 'postpone' or else 'plan'.

Can it be clarified? It's beautiful.
Tuesday June 8th 2010, 9:07 AM
Comment by: Kedarnath A. (Pune India)
It's a wonderful piece, Ben. I live here in India and it amazes me how we seem to invent language to suit our needs.
You must also mention the word "abscond". I don't know whether it has any frequency of usage outside of the subcontinent. An incident wherein a truck driver passing an Indian village rams his vehicle into a wall where two children are playing would be recorded in the next day's news with the following headline:
"Truck rams wall. Two children hurt. Driver absconding"
If he didn't run away the driver would certainly have been given a sound beating by the locals...!
"Prepone" is a word that I often use. Usually I pass on circulars informing all my colleagues that some big shot (usually a minster or his representative) has preponed his visit by two days thereby throwing everyone into a tizzy!
Tuesday June 8th 2010, 11:03 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
That's a good example for me! Thanks!
Monday June 14th 2010, 7:44 AM
Comment by: Kedarnath A. (Pune India)
A note on "revert"...I am not sure whether "revert" in Indian English translates exactly as "reply"..."I will revert to you tomorrow" usually means that there is some person who I need to talk to before being able to continue our discussion fruitfully and that I shall renew our discussions thereafter...which is more in line with the traditional meaning of "revert" as "returning to an original state"...
Friday April 10th 2015, 11:18 AM
Comment by: taco_emoji
Jane - I use "below" like that pretty often, and I'm a native Midwesterner from USA. However, it's only for a case like the following(!):

Please see the below screenshot. I've noticed there's a bug with the gooberplonk on the thingamajig.

{{screenshot goes here}}

So I only use it when there's at least one sentence between the reference and the referent. It's probably pedantic, but to me "the following" means the referenced object will be *immediately* subsequent to that sentence, so if there's an intervening sentence or paragraphs, I use "the below".

Obviously another solution is to use "the following" and actually place the object immediately thereafter, but sometimes it's a large image that needlessly interferes with the flow of the text.
Saturday April 11th 2015, 10:57 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I would use 'below', but in a different position. I'd say, "the item below". Now why is it usual for me to place it after the word? The only reason I can find is that that is a more usual place for it as an adverb.

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