February 27, 2011

Ass Backwards

Save the Words is a website from the makers of the Oxford English Dictionary, dedicated to saving underused words from extinction: words such as graviloquence and pigritude and squiriferous, that you are encouraged to adopt and re-introduce to the English language. As the examples I've cited illustrate,  there's a preponderance of leaden, faux-literate words here - these are the lumbering tuataras of the linguistic world, and I, for one, would rather see them waddle into oblivion. I think someone should instead make an effort to rescue certain racy Indian terms that have fallen into disuse. I'd like to make a start on the project by nominating a colourful expression I found recently in Joseph Thompson's A dictionary of Oordoo and English. Here's the entry from the dictionary, courtesy Google Books:

Gand ghalat (literally, 'ass-wrong') is the word here, defined as 'dead stupid' (the comma in the excerpt above has to be an error). Several other dictionaries from the nineteenth century present gand ghalat as a synonym for being out of one's wits, fuddled, or dead-drunk. The latter meaning can be found in John Gilchrist's Hindee moral preceptor, published in 1821, and Duncan Forbes' A dictionary, Hindustani and English.

Given its ubiquity in colonial-era dictionaries, gand ghalat must have been a very useful expression for the British in India. When I first encountered the term, I imagined red-faced Tommies and irate mofussil officials (or should that be mofussials?) muttering it under their breath as they contended with the baffling, plain-ass ghalat realities of an alien land.  But maybe I was dead wrong in picturing mad dogs and Englishmen sweltering in the mid-day sun, and the expression is meant to be used in more pleasant circumstances. Maybe it describes how you end up when the booze addles your brains to the point where you can't stand straight, and you topple over to land on your sorry ass. There you are in the gutter, gand ghalat.

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