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A bad word and its genesis

My aunt, who mothered me when I was in high school – that was about sixty-five years ago – would once in a while get very annoyed with me and would utter the word alaksana within my hearing distance.I knew it was for me. But she never used this word to call or address me. I didn’t feel terribly bad; the words that caused some hurt during those days were those which were comments on my intelligence: boka (stupid) and gadha (donkey), for example. The words alaksana and its feminine,alaksani,were familiar to me. In my childhood I had heard these in my village. After decades of my relationship with the word, it just occurred to me that I must reflect on this word and its use.

Words are indeed interesting “objects” – “linguistic objects”- for thought. They express the knowledge of a speech community of their world andin the case of the educated and prosperous speech communities, of the world outside theirs as well. Words reflect culture and some of them have fascinating stories associated with them. We will refer to one in this very piece. The nuances associated with some of the words express the personal or collective attitudes of its users and much else. Some of the “bad” words, thatis, words that hurt the hearer, adversely affect his (her / their) self-esteem, make him uncomfortable or offend his sensitivities can be more interesting for reflection than the sanitized, polite words.

Now, this does not mean that we are recommending the use of bad words here. We are merely saying that censored words can constitute an interesting subject for thought.Fascination for things censored or forbidden mighteven be natural to us; we know that a child looks for an opportunity to do what he has been specifically askednot to do. Except in the case of the more adventurous among the children, this tendency in him is suppressed by socialization as he grows up. By the way, the writers of many ghost- and demoness stories in our folktales have made creative use of this streak in us.The protagonist is asked not to do something but he does precisely that and then runs into real trouble. Often his life comes under threat. He is then saved by someone, who cares for him. And think of the fruit of the forbidden tree! Eve did what she was commanded not to do. There was the serpent of course but as my Milton teacher said, would the persuasions of the serpent have worked if there was no desire for the fruit in Eve in the first place?

To linger a bit on the fascination for the negative things,Wilhelm Nietzsche famously observed that one would miss “all the interesting people” in heaven. Niccolo Machiavelli said that in heaven, beggars, monks, hermits, etc. are the ones one would run into, whereas in hell, one would find “popes, kings and princes”. They almost celebrated hell, although these eminent luminaries did not say specifically what they would choose for themselves: interesting hell or uninteresting heaven. Now, interest in bad words could be viewed as part of this fascination for what the society considers unworthy of serious exploration and public discourse.

Bad words include taboo words, abusivewords, swear words,impolite wordsand boastful words, among others.Come to think of it, it is not that these words do not serve a social purpose. Had it been so, they would have long become extinct. Consider this: two people, engaged in a quarrel, would shout at each other, hurl bad words at each other and when the point of their contentment is reached, they go their way. Suppose they did not choose to exchange angry and insulting words at each other; then quite possibly they would have hit each other. Getting hit is being injured both psychologically and physically. Receiving insulting words is getting injured only psychologically. Now, would you say, bad language does not perform a useful purpose?

To return to alaksana. Actually the more colourful word is alaksani. This isthe basic term and alaksana, its masculine form, is a derivation of it. Alaksani is used as a term of reference (seita alaksani ta – she is an alaksani), and very rarely, of call and address (hailo alaksaniO alaksani). It is most often used as a term of scolding. Now, some terms of scolding can be used to show affection as well –cagali (naughty) and pagali (scatter brain) for example. But neveralaksani. It has a variant: kulaksani, which is seldom used in speech, if used at all, and seems to have been only very rarely used in writing. One of these rare occurrences of the word is in Phakir Mohan Senapati’s story “Rebati”. The Hindi speaker, Vikas Kumar, social scientist and author, observes that the equivalent of alaksani in Hindi is kulaksani but it has no masculine counterpart. The same observation seems to hold for the Bengali alaksi, the equivalent of alaksani – it has no masculine form. As in Odia, kulaksani and alaksi are used in the relevant languages as a term of reference but not as a term of call or address.

Now, what indeed is the meaning of alaksani? The primary meaning of it is “a bringer of bad luck”. In this sense it is not generally used today in face-to-face interaction even as a term of reference for the one who is not present. The ungenerous and sometimes lacking-in-understanding mother-in-law in poor families referred to her widowed daughter-in-law as alaksani but even that was decades ago. In Phakir Mohan’s story, Rebati’s mother-in-law called her a kulaksani. Things have changed and the social realities are different today. According to the linguist Anindita Sahoo, the verbal engagements between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law are a thing of the past. She observes that by and large, daughters-in-law of the educated families do not live any more with their mothers-in-law, who in many cases are also educated and when they do live together, it is only for a short time. This situation virtually eliminates the possibility of colourful verbal duels between the traditional adversaries in the family.

The other day, a young Odia housewife in her late thirties, brought up in Bhubaneswar, told me that she didn’t know the exact meaning of the word until her mother told her. To put it in the language of the pedagogical linguist, for her, the word was part of her “passive vocabulary”. She knew it was an abusive word but didn’t know what it precisely meant. Her mother told her that a woman who lacks manners and who deliberately does not observe the long accepted cultural normsis called alaksani. It is in this secondary sense that the word is being used today.  However, it is only sparingly used because,for the target hearer, it is never really free of its primary sense, although the speaker does not use it in that sense.

Now, is there any explanation of its primary sense? Most believe it derives from or is strongly connected with goddess Alaksmi. That seems to be correct. She is, as the negative prefix “a’ suggests, is anti- (goddess) Laksmi. Laksmi is associated with beauty and prosperity and by implication, all that go with prosperity. Alaksmi is associated with things that are entirely unwanted and is viewed as the bringer ofbad luck. She is ugly, has a very unpleasant voice, likes disorder and uncleanliness and does not like anything that is good and pure.

Going by the eighteenth century Odia poet Mahadeva Das’s story of goddess Alaksmi in his “Kartika Mahatmya”, the goddess is conceptualized as mentioned above but she is never the one who brings bad luck. In Das’s well-known narrative, she entered no one’s home on her own. In fact, when she did not like the purity in her husband sage Uddalaka’s, ashram, she came out of it. Her husband deserted her. To cut a long story short, her brother-in-law, the Supreme god Vishnu, gave her a place to stay. He asked her to reside in the unhappy houses where people constantly quarrel and live sinful lives, and trouble them. Thus she is not the bringer of bad luck as the word alaksmi that condemns her suggests. She is not the cause but the phala (consequence) of one’s own bad karma. She is blamed for bad luck because people find it immensely comforting to put the blame on others for their troubles which are the consequence of their own karma.

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

Prof. B.N.Patnaik

Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur

Email: [email protected]

(Images from the net)

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