The Treacheries of Words

Those that are learned in the modern theories of language have taught us how treacherous words can be.


For a start, there is no organic relation between a word and the object it implies.

For example, they tell us, there is nothing dog-like about the word “dog.” Nor is there anything colourfully red embedded in the form of the word “red.” How true!

Thus meanings are largely a matter of convention and cultural consensus among communities.

Alas, that is not all.

Further complications arise when it is considered that the objects towards which words signal (dog, red) in turn do not always or necessarily mean the same things to all users of the same language, even within closed communities.

Thus “dog” may to one person suggest something low and derogatory, but to another bring thoughts of loyalty and affection. Just as the word “red” may equally variously suggest any of the following: blood, wine, a traffic light, a communist, or, in the context of the current troubles in the global economy, just plain indebtedness (being in the red).



These unsettling ruminations were to assail me with force just the other day while listening to a premier English TV channel.

The spur to my discomfiture were the words “carnage” and “bloodbath.”

Like so many backward users of the English language, I had always thought that these words implied but one thing, namely, the gruesome extermination of human beings in large droves.

So that those of us who keep an interested eye on the affairs of the world have often used these words to describe the bloody consequences of collective human madness from time to time and place to place—for example, in relation to what history tells us happened when Ashoka invaded Kalinga, or during Alexander’s campaigns, or the massacres during the centuries of the Crusades, or Ghengez Khan’s depredations, or innumerable other accounts of medieval warfare, or the bloody gore in the trenches of the first world war, or the holocaust, or Hiroshima, or the genocides in Iraq, Rwanda, Bosnia, or the inter-communal butcheries that accompanied the partition of India, or the many communal pogroms that followed that event, leading upto the crowning “carnage” of Gujarat in 2002.

Or indeed the less noted butcheries vented routinely on India’s Dalits, women, ethnic and religious minorities, and so on.




Thinking of all that, it struck me that one has but rarely, if not never, heard India’s corporate print and electronic media use the words “carnage” or “bloodbath” to describe either the killings executed upon India’s “weaker sections” by diverse dominant groups or by uniformed branches of the state-apparatus. Although, one must quickly qualify that killings executed by what are called India’s Maoists or Naxals are often so designated—“carnage”, “bloodbath” etc.,

Customarily, however, the corporate media operate within a descriptive linguistic pendulum that goes from “social disturbance” to “inter-caste” or “inter-communal violence” to, at best, “riot.”

As to the millions who die from malnutrition, preventible diseases, and such like, when did you ever hear any strong words used that might raise concrete visions of the horrors thus perpetrated by a social order that thinks the best way to govern is to look after the elect. Surely who has ever heard a TV channel define a hundred thousand or so suicides by India’s imperiled farmers as a “carnage”? I certainly haven’t.



Imagine, therefore, my consternation (I was an English teacher for some four decades or more) upon hearing and seeing the words “carnage” and “bloodbath” used with force, and repeated force, by TV channels and the corporate print media to describe the goings-on in the stock market over the past week or so!

Looking to see red blood dripping down the screen, I only saw neat little red arrows in professional graphics pointing downward.

And then when you read the black bordered captions that announced “mournday” for Monday when the losses happened, you might have wondered too why the three days of butchery in Delhi in 1984, in Mumbai in 1992-93, and then in Gujarat in 2002 never got captioned “mourndays.”

Which is when, some apprenticeship coming to my aid, I recalled the modern theorists of language. I reminded myself how the same words need not mean the same things to all users of the same language.

Further reflection brought home the lesson how the profoundest transformation wrought by the Capitalist way of life has been to make the inanimate animate, and the animate inanimate. “Transferred epithet” the grammarians call this.

Thus, where you and I might, upon reading news of the stock market crash, think of dwindling currency notes, bank bonds and such-like, the Capitalists see reserve armies of investment and profit that keep in place the states they command in high order. And where you and I might see oppressed, imperiled and massacred millions of the human race, the Capitalist only sees annoying sods that merely clutter the high road to the globalised summit.

Thus “carnage” and “bloodbath” are but inaccurately used to define the liquidation of human subjects. Their proper use lies in describing the liquidation of bank credits, housing markets, FDIs, FIIs and the like. For the best human beings to the Capitalists are the crispest of currency notes and share certificates; and those that we call human beings are canon for the fodder.

Truly, the haves and the have-nots of the world speak a different English.


[email protected]





Leave a comment