Weird, merry and burra-bibiship

”weird” is a wonderful word. According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, it’s derived from the Old English “wyrd”, meaning “destiny”, “fate” or in the plural “the fates”.

Wondering about the name of the storm “Urd” brought me to the Norns, Urd (according to Wikipedia) representing the past and controlling the destinies of people together with the other two norns, Skuld and Verdandi. “Urd” is glossed with “wyrd”.

“wyrd” had become obsolete in English but survived in Scotland. Shakespeare used it for the “weird sisters” (witches) in Macbeth and it later obtained the sense of very strange, supernatural, uncanny in English. My Scots-English dictionary still lists “weird” as also having the meaning of “destiny” or “fate”. The same word is relating to the verb “werden” in German.  I like the word a lot now that I know it better.

The whole area of obsolete words and, in particular, why words become obsolete interests me. I would like to find an academic study which attempts to categorise different ways to obsolescence. Sometimes, for instance, reality changes and a phenomenon no longer exists or exists only as a narrow use technical term (for instance, a lot of vocabulary relating to various kinds of horse-drawn vehicles). Or political and cultural changes occur, an example being the wealth of words from India, which made their way into (and in many cases out of) English, so that “thug” is well established (aided and abetted by sub-variants of our national character unfortunately) but “tiffin” and “memsahib” are becoming rather rare not to mention “burra-beebee” (an Anglo Indian lady claiming precedence at a party, which became sufficiently well established in English in days of yore for Viscountess Falkland to refer to “burra-bibiship”).

Another interesting topical word is “merry”. In my youth, it was widely used as a synonym for “tipsy” (perhaps slightly tipsy) but I can’t hear myself or younger generation(s) using it in this sense.

There’s “merry-go-round” but my feeling is that the US “carousel” is taking over in the UK too. And it survives too in “playing merry hell”. And Robin Hood’s merry men perhaps. But there’s something Dickensian, red faced whiskered and jolly about a social gathering being merry.

The word’s survival is powerfully aided, of course, by “Merry Christmas”, which we write as it seems a bit monotonous to say “Happy Christmas” and a “Happy New Year” so Merry survives in the combination but my impression is that “Happy Christmas” is increasingly the normal greeting when used by itself.

“Merry” is an old word also going back to Anglo-Saxon and older variants of German. It has also given us the related “mirth”. But somehow being merry is not very chic, neither in the form of ordinary nor alcohol-induced happiness. The word has rather gone out of fashion, which is another interesting category.

Words tell us a lot about a culture, what you can say, what people felt they needed to say. The Anglo-Saxons, for instance, had “leodbygen” (sale of one’s compatriots), which has rather dropped out of use (temporarily?). Words are weird and wonderful. I love them.

India beyond the red crayon

My earliest memories of India are being given a blank map of the world and instructed to colour the countries of the Commonwealth red. It was really Burma that was the problem, giving me the experience of knowing I was being dishonest but wielding my crayon anyway.

And then there was Kipling, stories of life in India and various words in the language of Indian origin.

The early 1950s saw bold talk of New Elizabethans. I remember patriotic Christmas presents relating to the coronation of Elizabeth II with pictures of various exotic types waving to the crowd and beaming with gratitude for the bounty of Britannia.

I wasn’t encouraged to think about why this small island off the coast of Europe should control such vast areas or what we had done or were doing and to whom or whether this was right.

I have a memory from the age of six of sitting on our living room floor in front of the gas fire trying to decide whether I was sad or not because of the death of George VI. I am rather proud of this but a few more years were to elapse before I started to think critically about our role in the world.

There was an ex-Army man in my Somerset village whose house was full of things Indian. And then University and the 1960s and stories of travels to India via Istanbul and Afghanistan for incredibly small amounts of money. I tried this in July 1972 with my then girlfriend from Ecuador – we got as far as Teheran before our even smaller amount of money made a return to Europe advisable. Knowing what I now know about the Indian climate, this was fortunate….

Over a quarter of a century was to pass before I actually got there for a month. It was like discovering a new room or rather floor of one’s house, a fascinating combination of the familiar and exotic. Unexpectedly accessible because of the widespread use of English. And so much of interest to learn about the languages (including Indian English), Hinduism (to understand quasi-polytheistic Christian culture better in the light of an avowedly polytheist religion), literature and history.  I read intensively but slowed down after a few months as other projects demanded attention but have now started again, stimulated by our coming visit to Kolkota.

I’ve just finished a very interesting work by Jon Wilson, a lecturer at King’s College, London, “Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire. India Conquered”.  He is critical of those who try to present the Raj as smooth running and well ordered: “In practice the British imperial regime in India was ruled by doubt and anxiety from beginning to end…Most of the time, the actions of British imperial administrators were driven by irrational passions rather than by calculated plans. Force was rarely efficient. The assertion of violent power usually exceeded the demands of any particular commercial or political interest.”

It makes fascinating reading from the early days of small subsequently fortified trading posts on the coast, to the takeover of more and more areas, the rise of the East India Company, strange amalgam of economic group with semblance of state power, the effects of industrialisation in the UK and the barriers placed in the way of the growth of Indian industry, the breakdown of the old society and economy tending to lead to famine rather than the growth of industry. The inability of the English, few in number, to develop a stable basis of support among the Indian population as in Australia or Canada. Increasing panic leading to atrocities such as the massacre at Amritsar (Jallianwala Bagh) and machine gunning of crowds from the air at Gujranwala. And, as Wilson describes, the final scuttling away in the face of collapse after the second world war.

Jon Wilson provides an impressive range of material to support his thesis about the nature of the imperial regime. My knowledge of Indian history is not sufficient to see the weak spots or any stretched arguments in his fluent and well supported case. But the image in my mind is of a few British ants sitting on the back of the Indian elephant and wondering how to steer the beast. India was simply too huge and diverse and the English too few.

He provides a wealth of sources with a lot of interesting books that I would like to read and his book can be recommended to all those with an interest in that period of the UK and India’s history.