Three pages from a linguist's restless diary

Three Pages from a Linguist’s Restless Diary

Page One

On the evening our Prime Minister got into the TV box to decree that India was to be under a lock-down, every neighbour of mine picked up empty shopping bags and rushed to superstores to grab the stocks they could for the days and weeks they had to spend indoors. I could not do this as I was caught in a unique complication. It emerged as even before the TV decree was fully laid out, I received a call from an Adivasi colleague from Gujarat who has been running an educational institution for a couple of decades. He asked me for a correct translation of the phrase so that a notice could be written at the entrance of the institution. I offered a couple of suggestions, in Gujarati, but he rejected them out of hand. I said, talu mukyu, he said, that is only ‘locking’; I said talu thokyu, he said that means ‘slapping a lock’. Clearly lock-down was neither of these. He said it would look horrible if he were to write sansthaa band raheshe karan ke e taalamaa chhe, i.e. ‘the institution is shut because it is locked’.

I faced a unique complication. While others rushed out to stock up, I had to answer an adivasi colleague from Gujarat who wanted to put a notice on his institution and wondered how he might translate 'lock-down". The translation was not easy to find.

He wanted a credible phrase; a “good translation”, he repeated.  Humbled, I asked for time and decided to work on the question with the help of a dictionary. Dictionaries, as we know, are grand when they are closed and look poor when we open them. Since the simple, slim dictionary did not help, I decided to turn to the bulkier ones. I kept scribbling what I could gather in a scrap-book. I still have those pages with my notes, and this is what they say:

  1. Lock is a mechanism for fastening a door, lid, etc that requires a key of a particular shape, or combination of movements (In this case, neither the shape of the door is known nor the shape of the key, except ‘social distancing’, hence this meaning will not do).
  2. A confined section of a canal or a river (The Corona virus does not survive in water. So, this meaning too would not do).
  3. The turning of the front wheels of a vehicle for changing its direction or motion (but if all is to be immobilised, this meaning is irrelevant).
  4. Interlocking in a wrestling match (as body touch is to be avoided; this meaning is too scary; should be kept out)
  5. The Rugby player in the second row waiting for a ‘lock-forward’ (as my adivasi friends do not know what Rugby is, this is too outlandish)

I continued in my quest and examined each and every aspect of the semantic capabilities of the word ‘lock’ and all of the idioms built upon it. I could find in the second, the third and the fourth dictionary put together several idioms such as lock-out (as of an industry or a business house), lock up ( as in a prison house), locker ( as in a bank), lock step (as in the marching styles of a parade), lock-nut (as tailors famously know as the last stitch for a button), lock on to (that a radar expert waits for),  lockable and even lock-less; but I had no luck with lock-down. By the time, my pouring over the dictionaries and making meticulous notes was over, the lock-down hour had come. I concluded that I was under lock-down, a word that does not exist; and so was the country, and probably several other countries in the world. I hit the bed, tired and genuinely intrigued thinking that I was in a word that does not exist and in a world that had ceased to be what it was an hour ago.

I stumbled upon the Webster Dictionary and learnt that the term was first used in the 1970s to describe “an emergency measure or condition in which people are temporarily prevented from entering or leaving a restricted area or building during a threat of danger.”   

In the morning, when I opened my eyes – the newspapers were missing on that day as they were rumoured to spread contamination, a realisation dawned upon me. It was fascinating and frightening: I was wrapped in a ‘word’ that requires no ‘world’ to support it. ‘Apple’ in order to mean ‘apple’ needs an apple in the world somewhere; but ‘lock-down’ is only a word and does not require a thing or act called ‘lock-down’. This is the time when several conspiracy theories were making the rounds. The substance of most of those was that while there is no great reason, authoritarian governments have ‘lock-down-ed’ the world.  As I do not like to believe in conspiracy theories, I kept hoping that I would somehow find what in the world it was that the word was trying to represent, no matter if dictionaries have not so far recorded it. Later that day, I stumbled upon the Webster Dictionary and learnt that the term was first used in the 1970s to describe “an emergency measure or condition in which people are temporarily prevented from entering or leaving a restricted area or building during a threat of danger.”   

 

Page Two

The days and nights passed faster than I had imagined. There was so much to do inside the house.

I could not believe that there is so much work that one can do in-door, as much cleaning, fixing, re-organising and revising. Going by the radio, TV and newspapers, which had no space but for the Corona virus and the epidemic, I felt reassured. It was nice to see that everyone knew the meaning of the word, no matter if I did not. Then, as I was cleaning the book shelves, I noticed a copy of a book which I had read fifty years ago and had not touched since. It was by the 18th century English poet Alexander Pope. Since I had the time, and nothing but time, I decided to go through it again. This poet is not known to the present generation, nor is the poem, so let me add the following:

I picked up a copy of The Rape of the Lock (1896).  Re-reading this poem gave me a strange feeling that its title had a connection with ‘lock down’. The poem is about the war of vanities. Coming quickly on the heels of the anti-CAA-NCR-NRP agitation, via the Delhi ‘riots’ and the Nizamuddin congregation of the Tabliqui, did the ‘lock down’ have any hint of a mock-heroic? 

During the late 17th century, England had laws that made anyone but the believers in the Anglican Church pay a special tax. The poem, which sold 3,000 copies in the first four days on its publication in 1714, was based on an anecdote narrated by Pope’s Catholic friend, John Caryll. It seems he had once cut a ‘lock of hair’ off the fashionable Anglican lady Esabella Fermor. This created quite a war of words and retorts between the Anglicans and the Catholics in England. Alexander Pope knew enough Latin to know that the Latin word for ‘snatching, grabbing or carrying off’ was ‘rapere’. Its English version was ‘rape’. 

So, the Pope’s mock-epic was titled The Rape of the Lock.  Re-reading this poem gave me a strange feeling that its title had a connection with ‘lock down’. The poem is about the war of vanities. Coming quickly on the heels of the anti-CAA-NCR-NRP agitation, via the Delhi ‘riots’ and the Nizamuddin congregation of the Tabliqui, did the ‘lock down’ have any hint of a mock-heroic?  I could not quite decide, and asking the question was risky. Nor did I fully understand the significance of the clapping session and the lamp-lightening. I felt, it would have been more appropriate to declare life-long free education for the children of the healthcare professionals. But saying so could be quickly misunderstood. I placed the book back where it was.

Throughout these days, the ban on opening barber shops and saloons continued and televison and radio notices made it a point to announce so.

It was probably in the third week of the lock-down that various economists started speaking about the gloomy prospect for the economy. Revised estimates of the GDP and growth, the revised REPO and lending policy, the revised lists of NPA and loan defaulters, and the turbulent fall and fall of the NASDAC and the BSE started making news on the sidelines of the pandemic and the related statistical data. There were clear indications that the world’s economic order had taken a nose-dive and metaphorically, this was a rape of the ‘economic lock’. Throughout these days, the ban on opening barber shops and saloons continued and televison and radio notices made it a point to announce so.

 

Page Three

By the time the second extension of the lock down was announced, this time by an official lower down in the regime’s hierarchy, it became clear to me that ‘lock- down’ is not a word without a world. It has a clear meaning directly related to a massive increase in unemployment, economic devastation for farmers, a plunder of the future of the young people who were till now dreaming of some decent education, jobs and happiness, and a shrill death knell for the self-employed.

By the time the second extension of the lock down was announced, this time by an official lower down in the regime’s hierarchy, it became clear to me that ‘lock- down’ is not a word without a world. It has a clear meaning directly related to a massive increase in unemployment, economic devastation for farmers, a plunder of the future of the young people who were till now dreaming of some decent education, jobs and happiness, and a shrill death knell for the self-employed.

The boastful, hyped, vainglorious talk about the country’s economic might had been, in Alexander Pope’s sense, ‘locked down’, gone, carried off, fallen by Corona. What a great irony of fate, and the dictionary, that the term ‘Corona’ itself means in Latin ‘the crown, the emperor, the head of the state.’  I now know, though dictionaries do not, that the ‘lock down is due to the Corona virus’. Too late, I wrote to my colleague asking him to put up the notice, ‘mutchh kat gayi hone se darwaza bandh.’ It means, literally, ‘Lock down because of lock-down’.

The lock down shall continue from March to April to May and…

(The author is a literary critic and a cultural activist)

(The cover picture used on this page is from the cover of a pdf version of the book 'The Rape of the Lock' available on the internet in the public domain)