Sunday, 12 December 2010

Word of the Week: Hangnail

It is something that everyone is familiar with but may not know what it is called. A hangnail is a painful piece of loose skin at the side of a fingernail or toenail.

 A hangnail.                                                         Photo: Rick P.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Word of the Week: Philtrum

Philtrum is the name of the small depression between the base of the nose and the upper lip.


Thursday, 2 September 2010

Word of the Week: Murder

You might be wondering why I have chosen such an ordinary word this week. Well, a few years ago I saw an English film with the curious title A Murder of Crows. I did notice crows in a couple of scenes but none of them was killed, so why this name? Intrigued by the title I did some searching and found to my surprise that murder is a collective noun for crows!

Indeed, there is a long list of fascinating terms for groups of animals. I mention below a selection of the more interesting ones. Here is an enlightening discussion on the origin of the word murder and whether terms such as the following were ever in regular use or just someone's idea of a joke. And another over here.
A venue of vultures                                    Photo: Sentrawoods
A murder of crows                                    Photo: Loz Flowers
  • A shrewdness of apes
  • A murder / parliament of crows
  • A piteousness of doves
  • A business of ferrets / flies
  • A leap of leopards
  • A parliament of owls
  • A pandemonium of parrots
  • An ostentation of peacocks
  • An unkindness of ravens
  • A descent of woodpeckers
  • A cackle of hyenas
  • A crash of rhinos
  • A prickle of porcupines
  • A cowardice of curs
  • A convocation of eagles
  • A sounder of pigs
  • A venue of vultures
  • A kettle of vultures (when circling in the air)
  • An ambush of tigers
  • A sleuth of bears
  • A coalition  of cheetahs
  • A mischief of mice
I owe this information to the following webpages:,,

PS: I have chosen a smaller font size for this post. Please let me know if you prefer this size or the one in the previous posts. Thanks.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Marriage vs Wedding

I got the idea for today's post while reading a news article about Shashi Tharoor's wedding which said: About 100 close relatives, including 20 from Pushkar's side, attended the marriage...(

Many people in India use the word marriage when referring to the ceremony where a marriage takes place, instead of the more appropriate wedding.  However, the use of marriage in this context is not wrong, as is apparent from the second definition of the word shown in this screenshot from the Macmillan dictionary.

Nevertheless, wedding should be the preferred word since it refers specifically to the ceremony.

You can easily remember this distinction if you keep in mind the following film-titles, all of which use wedding rather than marriage. 
  • My Big Fat Greek Wedding
  • My Best Friend's Wedding
  • Monsoon Wedding

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Word of the Week: Triskaidekaphobia

Noun. Pronounced tris-kai-deka-FObia
Listen to the word here. 

Where's the 13th floor?                                Photo: Quinn Anya

The superstition that the number thirteen brings bad luck is common in many parts of the world. This fear is such that many hotels and apartment buildings don't have a thirteenth floor or a room numbered thirteen. This irrational fear is known by the tongue-twister triskaidekaphobia. I chose this as the Word of the Week as we have just passed Friday the 13th, a date which is feared to be so unlucky that it has been used as the name of a horror movie.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Who vs Whom

It seems to me that many people, not just Indians, do not use the pronoun whom very often, if at all; maybe they do not know when to use it, so they just stick to who. 

In order to get an idea of how widespread this practice is, I googled "who did he talk to" and got 599,ooo results. Then I searched the grammatically correct version of that sentence, "whom did he talk to", and got a mere 49,000 results! 

I performed another search and the results were equally revealing. This time I entered "who do you think you are talking to"  and it's grammatically correct sibling "whom do you think ..."; the results for the former were many times greater than for the latter.

But it's not difficult to understand if you put in a little effort.  Let me explain.

 Who and whom are used just like he and him. All four of these words are pronouns; who and he are known as 'subject pronouns' while 'whom' and 'him' are 'object pronouns'. The subject of a sentence is a noun or a pronoun which performs an action and the object is the recipient.

Let's take an example. Let's suppose that a female teacher scolded one of her male students. Using pronouns we can say:

"She scolded him." The female teacher was the one who performed the action, so she is the subject and is represented by the subject pronoun she, and the student is represented by the object pronoun him.

 If you don't know who the recipient of the action was then you can ask the question "Whom did she scold?" using the object pronoun whom.  Here, who would have been wrong since it can represent only the subject of a sentence, which in our example is the teacher.

Let's take the first sentence that I googled, "who did he talk to". Imagine yourself answering that question with "he talked to ____". Here, he is the subject since he is the one performing the action of talking. So the pronoun to fill the blank will have to be the object pronoun whom, not the subject pronoun who.

Similarly, if you were to answer the second sentence, "who do you think you are talking to", you would say "I am talking to _____". Here again, I is performing the action and is therefore the subject and the recipient of the action, and the object, needs to be represented by the object pronoun whom.

I hope I haven't confused you further. More lucid explanations can be found here and here.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Word of the Week: Vomitorium

Noun. Pronounced: vomi-TOR-i-um
Listen to the word here.

A vomitorium.                            Photo courtesy: York University

Vomitoria at an ancient Roman amphitheatre. Photo courtesy: SebastiĆ” Giralt

The image that came to my mind, the first time I saw this word, was of a place meant for people to vomit in. It turned out to be something very different. And far more pleasant.

Vomitoria were the wide passageways in ancient amphitheatres through which large numbers of spectators could enter and exit. These days most sports stadiums and movie theatres have vomitoria.

Both vomit and vomitorium come from the Latin vomere, 'to spew forth, to discharge'.

Incidentally, amphitheatres were called so because they were circular in shape whereas theatres used to be semi-circular; the prefix amphi is Greek for 'both' or 'on both sides', hence a theatre on both sides would make an amphi-theatre. Clever!

A theatre.                                        Photo courtesy: Phil Gyford
An amphitheatre.                                  Photo courtesy: http2007

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Word of the Week: Schadenfreude

Noun. Pronounced SHAA-d'n-froi-der 
Listen to the word here.

Childless couples often go to great lengths to conceive a child of their own. If in spite of their efforts and money spent they are unable to do so, they may decide to undertake the time-consuming procedure of adopting a baby. 

Fortunately, adopting a word from another language is much simpler: there are no forms to fill, no interviews with the adoption agency and no house-visits. If you like a word, just take it!

I fell in love with this word the first time I saw it and came to know what it meant. It is a German word, adopted by the English language since it has no equivalent of its own. Its meaning:  pleasure derived from others' misfortune. 

Schadenfreude is what a political party in the opposition would feel on seeing the government in hot water due to a financial scandal. Or what a businessman would feel on seeing a competitor suffer big losses.  Or ... you get the picture, right? And here are some funny examples that I came across.

Monday, 12 July 2010

LIC, mediclaim and xerox

Until a few years ago the insurance industry in India consisted only of public sector companies: Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) was the only company selling life insurance policies and there were four public sector firms selling general insurance products like medical, householder's and vehicle insurance policies.

 Mediclaim is the brand name of the medical insurance policy offered by public sector general insurance firms, but it is widely used generically, even in the Press, to refer to policies sold by the private companies as well.

Likewise, xerox (from Xerox Corporation, manufacturer of photocopiers) is used both as a noun and as a verb to mean (to) photocopy. And the popularity of the Hoover vacuum cleaner in the US led to it being used as a verb: to hoover, meaning to vacuum.

Do you know of any other brand names being used generically?

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Word of the Week: acnestis

Everyone suffers an itch now and then. But when it is on that part of the back where you just cannot reach, no matter how you contort your body, it can get really annoying. You must have seen cattle rubbing their backs against tree-trunks and dogs writhing on the ground on their backs trying to relieve a persistent itch.

And would you believe it! There is a word for it! Seriously. It's called acnestis: the part of an animal's back where it cannot scratch itself.

Although this term is used with respect to quadrupeds (an animal that walks on four legs) nothing stops us from using it to refer to the same part of our anatomy.

Just des(s)erts

I recently came to know that the expression just desserts ( a punishment or reward that a person deserves) should actually be written with a single s, as just deserts. 

The noun desert in this sense means 'something which is deserved'. However, it is pronounced the same as dessert, i.e. with the stress on the second syllable and this is why the confusion arises. The noun desert in the commonly used sense of 'dry, barren region' is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable.

You can read Michael Quinion's explanation here.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Word of the Week: petrichor

The summer has been harsh, as usual, and the northern part of India is looking forward to the arrival of the first monsoon rain (the southern region having been baptised already) to deliver us from the murderous heat and drought.

And when the first rain falls on dry earth there arises that familiar, pleasant smell which everyone loves and many of you might have wondered if there was a word for it. Well, indeed there is: petrichor. (The pronunciation can be found here.)

You might have noticed that this is also my pseudonym on this blog.

Friday, 18 June 2010


Did you know that the word we use for a spare wheel, stepney, comes from Stepney Street in Llanelli, Wales, where the first spare wheels were manufactured. It was invented in 1904 by two brothers, Tom and Walter Davies who were ironmongers by profession and who later branched out into assembling bicycles and then into hiring out cars.

The Stepney Spare Wheel consisted of a pre-inflated tyre mounted on a spoke-less iron wheel rim which could be clamped onto a deflated tyre (see picture).

India is one of the very few countries where the word stepney  is still used.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Phenomena and Alumni

The words phenomena and alumni  are plural nouns but are frequently used as if they were singular, as seen in the following examples:

  • "This is a phenomena that has started since the entry of Reliance in the GSM market in January this year," said an analyst with a Mumbai-based brokerage. (
  •  Sometimes a phenomena called ballooning occurs in hydraulic circuits where the hydraulic brake hoses swell up after repeated braking... (
  •  An alumni of the famed Loyola College, Chennai, Shri Vaithilingam imbibed a zeal and commitment for public service from his student days. (
  •  Lt. Gen. Rajinder Singh Sujlana is an alumni of National Defence Academy, Khadakvasla and the Indian Military Academy. (
 In these examples the singular forms, phenomenon and alumnus, were needed.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010


Personnel is frequently used by the press in India even when referring to a single person, particularly if he belongs to the armed forces (see the examples below). This is an error since personnel is plural. Serviceman can often be an appropriate substitute in cases where the rank of the person is not known.

1. It was unfortunate that an army personnel posted at a high altitude field area who met with an accident while at duty was granted a meagre pension. (

2.  On Tuesday night, one terrorist and an army personnel along with a civilian were killed in another gun battle in the area. (

3. The other argument of the police was that the service rules did not permit grant of out-of-turn promotion more than twice in the career of a police personnel. (

In the first two examples, serviceman would have served the purpose and in the third one policeman would have been perfect. 

Sunday, 16 May 2010


According to 'an intensifier is an adverb used to give force or emphasis, for example really in my feet are really cold.' However, many people wrongly use literally as an intensifier, as in the following examples taken from various websites:-

  1. I was literally blown away when I tested this device's noise reduction capabilities.(
  2.  Overall, Sony is better, but then this Acer notebook is literally a steal at that price. (
  3.  "Destiny literally came knocking at my door and I welcomed it," says Aditya. (From an interview with Aditya Raj Kapoor, in
  4.  Amitabhji has been a source of inspiration because he has literally opened the highway for mature actors to do meaningful work in India. (Same source as no. 3 above)
 In the first sentence, for instance, really would have been a good substitute for literally   since I am sure that the person who was testing the device did not get blown away by the gadget exploding (which is its literal meaning); he got blown away merely in a metaphorical sense.

Similarly, Destiny knocked at Aditya's door, metaphorically speaking and not literally.

Literally has been used correctly in the following news headline:-

It's raining fish in Lajamanu literally
Believe it or not but a Territory town in Australia has witnessed fish raining from the sky twice this week. Apparently hundreds and hundreds of small, white fish fell from the sky at Lajamanu, about 550 km southeast of Katherine.

 And it seems that this error is not restricted to Indians as evident from this blog dedicated entirely to the misuse of literally. 

Tuesday, 11 May 2010


The word post is increasingly being used in India as a synonym for after.  The problem is that it is being used as a preposition rather than as a prefix. Take a look at the following examples taken from Indian publications: -

1. Kunal Dasgupta, quoted in The Times of India (TOI): Zee TV had staged the Indian Cricket League which was a failure. Modi was attempting an IPL post that.

2. From an article in the TOI: Women who live in Faridabad but travel to Delhi for work say they would never venture out alone post 8 pm.

3. From India Today magazine: This month Jake Gyllenhaal proves the fact that nothing works better post a break up than an extremely sexy makeover. 

In all the examples given above, after should have been used instead of post.

Post should be used as a prefix, as in post-match press conference, post-partum depression, post-natal complications, postdated cheque etc.


This blog is meant for sharing my observations and opinions on the use and misuse of English in India, and about the English language in general. Comments and suggestions are welcome.