Foreigners who make friends with Indians often wonder why we seem to say ‘Yeah’ at the end of each sentence.
When you explain to them that it is not ‘Yeah’ but ‘Yaar’, they look even more confused. What does ‘yaar’ mean, they want to know?
The honest answer is that while the word means friend, it is not actually used in that sense. Rather, it is an all-purpose phrase used to acknowledge the person you are speaking to, even if he or she is not really a friend.
To understand how much befuddlement this causes, think of the way Indians react to the use of ‘La’ in Singapore. The Singapore Chinese use ‘La’ in pretty much the same way that Indians use yaar. But because the term seems restricted to overseas Chinese (I’ve never heard it used on the mainland or even in Hong Kong), it is easily mistaken for ‘love’ by those not familiar with the usage. I have known many foreigners to recoil in surprise when taxi drivers turn to them and say “Where you going, love”. Actually, of course, the taxi drivers are saying ‘la’ not love but with Chinese accents being what they are, the distinction is not clear to foreigners.
Then, of course, there’s the word ‘love’ itself. In the 60s, when the street-talk of Liverpool and the north of England spread around the world, thanks to such bands as the Beatles, it became fashionable to use ‘love’ in the way that Indians use ‘yaar’. It was a meaningless word: just because somebody called you ‘love’, it did not mean that he or she harboured any real feelings towards you. And soon, people began spelling ‘love’ as ‘luv’ to make the distinction between true love and a Liverpudlian way of addressing somebody.
How you address people or refer to them tends to define where and how you were brought up. If you refer to other people as ‘chaps’ it usually means that you come from the English upper middle classes and went to public school. (Or it could just mean that you are a Bengali who thinks that all English people talk like that.) If you refer to your friends as ‘lads’ then it is a reasonable assumption that you grew up somewhere north of Oxford or at the very least, that you did not go to public school. The term ‘bloke’ is slightly more complicated. It was once a designator of class but now it is sometimes used ironically by people of all backgrounds.
This kind of linguistic confusion is defined by the word ‘mate’. In England, the term was once the preferred form of address among the working classes. But then, Australian culture spread to the rest of the world and we discovered that all Australians, no matter how privileged or how poor, call each other ‘mate’. So now, ‘mate’ has lost its original class connotations and has become part of general usage.
|"After all, ‘boss’ is traditionally used to address a superior. So, at which stage did it morph into the kind of term people used for those who were not superior but who they wished to treat with respect?"
Then, there are the terms that emerged from America’s black sub-culture. During the Jazz Age, musicians referred to each other as ‘cats’ as in “That cat plays a mean horn”. Some jazz musicians still use the term but for most of us the use of ‘cat’ is regarded as dated and retro. The new terms come from the street music of the last two decades. It is routine to address somebody as ‘bro’ even if the two of you are not exchanging hugs on the streets of Harlem. So it is with ‘yo’ as a synonym for ‘hello’. Once upon a time this was gang-speak. Now, it is polite usage.
It is interesting that even those who shy away from using ‘yo’ as a means of greeting are now reluctant to say ‘hi’ or ‘hello’. Instead, a compromise has been found in the word ‘hey’. When two investment bankers greet each other, they do not say ‘hello’. They say ‘hey’. Yes, I know: go figure!
As a general rule, terms from white culture do not last or soon become naff. You can’t really call somebody a ‘chap’ any longer. Nor can you use ‘fella’ as a greeting. There are still white Americans of a certain age and background (Al Gore, for instance) who will use ‘fella’ but it amounts to hanging a sign around your neck that says ‘I went to prep school’.
The same is true of ‘pal’, which seems too white American these days. Or even of ‘hombre’ which enjoyed a brief popularity in the Sixties among white men who were trying to seem cool.
I used to always think that ‘dude’ came from the hip-hop street culture but a recent article in London’s The Sunday Times claims that it was picked up from the American skateboard culture. Apparently, skateboarders call each other ‘dude’.
Unfortunately, the term is now routinely used by middle-aged men who have never been skating. And many young people find it impossible to begin a sentence without using the word ‘dude’ as in “Dude, where’s the party tonight?”
I have my own personal favourite among these terms. One of the problems faced by Indians is how to address service staff. If you want to be nice to a taxi driver, a shop assistant or a waiter, what do you call him? I find that increasingly Indians are leaning towards the term ‘boss’ as in “Can I get a Diet Coke, boss?”
I don’t fully understand the etymology of the term. After all, ‘boss’ is traditionally used to address a superior. So, at which stage did it morph into the kind of term people used for those who were not superior but who they wished to treat with respect? I’m guessing that the answer to that question will tell us something about the transition Indians have made from being a rigidly hierarchical society to become something a little more egalitarian.
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