November 04, 2004


One of the characteristics of Indian English that sets it apart from British or American English is the manner in which it mixes registers of language. We are ruled by babus, and their jargon has made its way into our everyday speech. For instance, issueless would be considered legalese in most varieties of English, but in India you will find it used rather casually in matrimonial advertisements.

Some legal and administrative jargon has been borrowed into Indian languages in a corrupted form, especially in street slang where the original English phrase may undergo a significant shift in meaning.

Hapichole is Singlish for ‘habitual’, but the word has undergone a semantic restriction. In its original application it may have been used in some set phrase as ‘habitual offender’, but now, standing alone, it describes a good-for-nothing, a vagabond, a parasite, a hanger-on.

(Arjuna Parakrama, Dehegemonizing language standards)
Another such word is powertoni, a keyword in Suketu Mehta's account of Mumbai politics and society. This is a corruption of 'power of attorney'; according to Mehta, its street meaning goes beyond the accepted legal definition to stand for 'the only kind of power that a politician has, a power of attorney ceded to him by the voter'.

'The ministers are ours,' he said. 'The police are in our hands. They cooperated during the riots. If anything happens to me, the minister calls.' He nods. 'We have powertoni'.

He repeated the word a few times before I realized what it meant. It was a contraction of 'power of attorney', the ability to act on someone's behalf, or to have others do your bidding, sign documents, release criminals, cure illnesses, get people killed. In Mumbai, the Shiv Sena is the one organization that has powertoni.

('Mumbai', Suketu Mehta, Granta 57)

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