Language keeps ever changing, like a tree shedding old branches and putting out new ones, or like a river that never stops shifting course – and, at one level, it is a fascinating thing to watch and practise with, as any teacher of language must. It’s one of those things that keep me from getting bored with what I do. But, as I have sometimes commented before, there are changes that cause disquiet, or at least stir the funny bone for their sheer frivolity or absurdity, like substituting ‘anyway’ with ‘anyways’, and calling everything under the sun ‘awesome’ (recently some of my kids got certificates for being ‘awesome’ volunteers in a school function – not ‘excellent’ or ‘outstanding’, but awesome), or signing off with ‘Best’, as though it would wear your fingers out to type ‘With best wishes’, and calling the head of an academic department a ‘Chair’, or saying ‘I hope you’re doing good’ when you obviously mean ‘doing well’…galloping laziness and mindlessness combined with a desperation to be ‘in’ with the ‘cool’ crowd is not an edifying thing to see all around you!
There are three words in particular that I want to discuss in this post. Everyone suffers from ‘tension’ these days (and everybody seems to have forgotten that once upon a time it was a technical word, by which doctors referred to blood pressure and engineers to the tautness of an electrical wire): what happened to the good old ‘worry’ and ‘anxiety’? What better function does ‘tension’ serve (especially in the mouths of paanwallah’s sons, the sort of people who cannot string together one ten-word sentence correctly in English)? Then there is ‘mistake’. Everybody seems to make only ‘mistakes’ these days, never a misdemeanour or an offence, leave alone a crime or a sin! I regularly underline the word when I read essays where a pupil writes about a bully harassing a child, or a student cheating in his examination, and afterwards – most commonly when they are punished for it – realizing their ‘mistake’! Isn’t it one way we are teaching our young (and by young today I mean everybody under thirty) never to take responsibility for serious wrongdoing – when they can always expect to get away by claiming it was just a ‘mistake’? How much longer will it be before people in the dock accused of murder will tell the judge they shouldn’t be severely punished because it was, after all, just a ‘mistake’?
And finally (for now) there is ‘insult’. Of late I have been frequently hearing (and reading-) teenagers saying ‘The teacher insulted me’ (for not doing homework, being rude in the class, coming late to school, failing in an examination or whatever). They didn’t say it so commonly twenty years ago, I can vouch for that, and I find it deucedly odd. Has the meaning of the word changed then, or have teachers changed, or have the children’s attitudes changed drastically? In our time, we had in general much sterner teachers: they not only scolded us, often harshly, but were liberal in meting out corporal punishment with the cane and otherwise. Many of them we still revere, and have no hard feelings for; to some, we are eternally grateful for all they did, and no, we certainly never dreamt of saying they ‘insulted’ us (though, admittedly, as all my Bengali readers will understand, even the best of us were frequently addressed as goru, gaadha, bandor, chhagol, pantha, bhoot, hotochchhara, idiot and the like). On the other hand, on the very few occasions when I did find a teacher’s behaviour truly unjust and cruel, I stood up to it in a way that no present-day student can dream of doing: at best they go and complain to daddy and mummy. My father did the same as a schoolboy, I happen to know: he seized the cane from his headmaster, broke it and threw it away – and willingly took everything that came his way as a consequence. Real men don’t cringe before authority figures and abuse them behind their backs. So what do my readers think has changed in these intervening years? Has something gone wrong with our teachers, or are today’s students a cowardly lot saddled with overblown and fragile egos?