Mirrored in words

Nimesh Ved

“Why is the number of children in a school called strength?” This question from the article, ‘Of skills, learning, intelligences and … the marketplace’ (Teacher Plus, November 2018, Cover story) struck me. Why is it not the abilities of teachers or students, or values the school adhered to, or even the school’s infrastructure, I wondered, which are a school’s strength?

The question also had me recall terms used in similar vein. Apart from leaving me bemused, intrigued, and on occasions even uncomfortable, these terms have often left me with unanswered questions.

Do these terms and their usage, mirror our changing worlds?

During a recent conference, a speaker mentioned how previously the ministry governing education in our country was referred to as ‘Education Ministry’. Today, schools and colleges come under the ambit of the ‘Ministry of Human Resource Development’. This change in title, he stressed, is not incidental but in line with the shift in focus from education per se to the generation of resources that meet the needs of an industrial economy.

How much does one read between the lines in the context of such terms? What messages do we convey to children, who also learn of languages at school?

A visit to a campus housing two schools left me wondering. Each school is accredited to a separate education board and uses a distinct language to communicate. One of these, however, is referred to as the ‘rural school’ while the other is just ‘school’.

A trip to yet another school revealed that adults who accompany younger ones on their annual trips and treks were referred to as ‘Escorts’. Escort, a term that brings to mind security and male chauvinism, as opposed to ‘guides’ or ‘facilitators’ or ‘co-ordinators’ or even ‘mentors’.

I am reminded of Osho’s quote here, “The tongue never slips – remember this always. What goes on within the mind comes invariably on the tongue”.

The issue is not just restricted to the education world. Coming to day-to-day terms, ‘sir’, for example, has found a wide acceptance within a short span. Today, it is not easy to escape the term in most parts of our country. It is distant and sterile, lacks the warmth of a ‘bhaiya’ or a ‘dada’ or a ‘bhai’, but is safe. Few, if at all, will mind being referred to as sir.

Does this trouble us? Have there been instances, during recent times, of specific terms being consciously done away with?

Pranab Mukherjee, during his tenure as the President of India, brought in a new set of protocols for the Rashtrapati Bhawan. These included removing select honorifics; ‘Honourable’ replaced ‘His Excellency’ and ‘Rashtrapati Mahoday’ did the same with ‘Mahamahin’. The statement from his secretary then stated ‘in the Indian constitution everyone is equal under the law and so the president felt the protocols needed a fresh look’.

One can argue that the usage of these terms could be driven by multiple factors – falling language skills, decreasing attention spans or us just not being bothered! Then there is the R J Cappon line to fall back on, “It’s always a bit of a struggle to get the words right, whether we’re a Hemingway or a few fathoms below his level”.

But, to close with a question, how many of us have wondered why at restaurants we ‘order’ food and not ‘request’ food?

The author loves long walks, silences and both of them together. He blogs at http://nimesh-ved.blogspot.com/ and can be reached at [email protected].

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