Words can be fun


It was close to midnight in April or May 2003 (I cannot recall). I was watching on television an interview of the then UK Premier Tony Blair who was trying to justify the invasion of Iraq. Saddam had been defeated and was on the run. Relying to a question by the interviewer, Blair said something to this effect: the Saddam Hussain regime had an active weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programme; it was just that the Coalition forces had not been able to find any stockpile of WMDs. During the interview, he used the expression “sex up”, which sounded a bit strange to me but I left it at that. At that moment, it was PM Blair’s statement that had completely occupied my mind.So, a war had been fought on the basis of dubious information! Even more shocking for me was the nonchalance with which the PM had made his observation.

When I got up in the morning, the English teacher in me woke up and I looked up the Oxford, Cambridge and Webster dictionaries for the phrase “sex up”. None contained it in the sense in which the PM had used it. The expression sounded like a slang but that could not be a reason for its non-occurrence in major dictionaries.  A good dictionary contains information, not just about the meaning of words, but about their usage as well, and information about usage includes the kind of discourse in which the word ordinarily occurs: formal, informal, colloquial, etc., whether the word is to be excluded from polite and public discourse, being considered vulgar, obscene, etc., and more.When precisely “sex up” in the sense of “hype up” or “sensationalize”entered the general- purpose dictionaries, I have not been able to find out, but by 2006, it seems to have entered common usage. In his 2006 book “The God Delusion”, Richard Dawkins says of “pantheism” that it is “sexed-up atheism”.

Now, where did this slang originate? One might dismiss it as a lazy question -how does it matter? All one has to know about a word is its meaning and its use but the fact is that for some reason, this “origin” question fascinates people everywhere;there is something romantic about discovering the origin or source of, say, a river, a food item or a thought.  As for the origin of “sex up” in this specific sense, I still have no idea, but I think it most unlikely that it originated in the linguistically sanitized corridors of power or in the campuses of prestigious universities or in the writings of the masters of the craft of creatingwords. I guess, like many interesting slangs in all languages, it originated in the areas where the socially marginalized people live – people who use language more creatively than they have been credited with. Now, is“sex up” an Americanism or a Briticism? A friend suggests it’s an Americanism since the British people are somewhat conservative when it comes to language use and of course much else!Well, it could be, considering that American English tends to use “up” more often than British English does: “cope up”, “meet up”, “ring up”, etc.

And yes, “sex up” is like “hot dog” in that it has nothing to do with sex just as “hot dog” has nothing to do with the dog (by the way, I learnt the meaning of “hot dog” in the hard way. That’s for another day.)

After that “hot dog” experience of mine, I thought I had done,for ever, with the dog word, if not the real- world object. But no! Just the other day I came across this sentence in which “dog” appears: “Cristiano Ronaldo and Mohamed Salah will go head- to- head for the right to be billed as the Premier League’s top dog when Manchester United face arch-rivals Liverpool… (“Sundy Time of India”, 24 October 21)”.“Dog” symbolizing excellence was new for me. In our culture, dog is revered as the vehicle of god Bhairava but it’s different with the word “dog”. It’s highly derogatory in Odia, is an abusive expression and it is probably so in many other Indian languages.

Now, the use of “dog” as a symbol for excellence in British English might be a borrowing.There are, for example, “every dog has his day”, “go to the dogs”, “live a dog’s life”, “he is a dog”, and some more like these and “dog” is not used in a complimentary sense in any of these. Given this,“top dog” in sticks out as the front teeth of the old demoness in the Odia folktales. This suggests that it must have come to British English from some influential English-speaking country.

“Whitewash” is the word we are much too familiar with, in both its literal sense andfigurative sense, as in “propaganda is often used to whitewash failures”. But “sports wash”? When did you come to know about this word? As for me, only the other day, when I read this sentence in a news report in “The Times of India”, 11 November 21: “Bayern displayed a huge banner during the team’s home game on Saturday, criticizing the club for what they say is the ‘sports washing’ of human rights abuses in Qatar by accepting sponsorship from that country’s national airline ‘Qatar Airways’”.

The meaning of “sports wash” is clear from the context; sports connection with the world-famous German football team was used by the sponsor country to get the unacceptable doings at home a whitewash. By hosting the immensely popular and prestigious FIFA World Cup in 1978, the Argentinian dictator had tried to divert the country’s attention from the problems at home and to improve his government’s acceptability in the world, which was an act of sports washing.

In all probability, unlike “sex up”, the phrase “sports wash” originated in the elite environment. Although its use can be found in the reports of some prestigious newspapers like “The Guardian” and in political discourse in UK from 2015 onwards, it hadn’t entered Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries till 2019. However, the 2019 online editions of Collins and Macmillan dictionaries contained this expression.

Many of us are familiar with “religious tourism”, “cultural tourism”, “ethnic tourism”, “adventure tourism”,“wildlife tourism”,“educational tourism” and now “ecotourism”. Some might have been familiar with “election tourism” in the sense of people visiting places in connection with elections and doing a bit of sight-seeing in the process. But when the Odisha CM used this expression ironically during the elections in 2019 (orissadiary.com, 27 April 2019), he did not mean exactly this. He termed the frequent visits of some Central leaders to Odisha as nothing but “election tourism”. “Sight-seeing” was not part of the meaning of this expression. To that extent, he gave a different meaning to the expression and thereby made a contribution to the tourism vocabulary.

Words, ignored by almost all, arefascinating linguistic objects, if you care to spend a little time on them.Some of them are culturally loaded; so,through them you have an understanding of the culture of the community. Unlike in the case of a river but so much like in the case of a proverb, you would never be able to tracethe origin of an alien-sounding word. But trying to trace it can be an enlightening experience. In the process, in the case of some words, wewould get to know so much about the history, belief systems, social practices, etc. of the relevant linguistic community.In course of time, a word may undergo meaning-change – “babanabhuta” does not mean today in Odia what it meant in the fifteenth century; then it was the name of a ghost, now, the ghost sense is entirely lost. The process of change is itself interesting, it’s really challenging if you try to find the rationale for the changeand the process of the change in course of time.

If, confined to home in these days of the pandemic, you are bored, take interest in words. You will not regret it – telling you from experience!

To return to WMDs to close this piece. The day after I had heard PM Blair on television, I ran into the hidden- agenda- specialist friend of mine. “Forget about what Blaire said,” he told me, “The war wasn’tabout WMDs, silly, it was about oil.” I looked at him in amazement: his small head contained so much and mine,pathetically solittle!

(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)