You have probably spent some time on the list of over 110 Indianisms that I recorded over the past few years. It has been a fun project to stop and make a note when something sounds slightly off to my American ear.
However, I have a feeling that the term “Indianism” gets a bad rap. It has some automatic negative connotation and is seen as a bastardization of the Queen’s English.
In my opinion, I think many Indianisms actually improve on existing English usage, and some of these innovations should be standard across the English-speaking world. So, I’ve given some thoughts here on which ones I think are better, and which ones aren’t.
Immediately, I must admit that this list compares American English with Indian English. I am fully aware that a large chunk of these words are British in origin and may still actively be used there.
In selecting which phrases where superior (American or Indian), I used the following criteria. A phrase is better if:
- It has no direct equivalent
- It uses fewer words
- It has fewer troublesome alternate meanings
- It makes more logical sense to use
- It makes communication clearer
You may want to keep the dictionary page open for a quick reference for the meaning of some of these phrases.
When the Indianism wins…
Prepone – This is the best of the lot and should be used by everyone immediately. It is logical, useful, and there is no equivalent. In the US, you have to say, “Move the meeting up”, which is confusing.
Fortnightly – Is bi-weekly twice a week or once in two weeks? What about bi-monthly? Fortnightly is very clear – once in two weeks (14 days).
Co-brother – What do you call your wife’s sister’s husband? Is he a brother-in-law? Ehhh, sort of. But when two men marry sisters, there is a bond that is created that only the term co-brother seems adequate to capture.
Cousin-brother – This one is more apt for India where large joint families often still live together and you grow up treating your cousins like brothers and sisters. ‘Cousin’ is familial, but a bit distant. Cousin-brother (or sister) shows a closer relationship.
Tight Slap – To give someone “a piece of my mind” just doesn’t carry the same weight.
Sweet – We use it as an adjective, but it works fine as a noun. Neither “desserts”, “treats”, nor “cookies”, accurately describes all the sugary goodies you can have around a festival. What’s wrong with “Christmas sweets”?
Spinster – Potentially the most awesome term you could give to a woman who isn’t married, and infinitely better than “old maid”.
Query – As a verb, there really isn’t a simple equivalent for this one. “Ask a question” is too long, and “enquire” seems too official.
Freshers – I find this term to be better than “freshmen”, “rookies”, “first-timers”, or “newbies”. A lot depends on the connotation you grew up with, but all things being equal, I think freshers is the best.
Eating my brain – That’s just good imagery, folks.
Sitting on my head – Ditto.
Cribbing – Very raw, yet more elegant than “bitching”.
Come home – Indians use this to invite someone to their home. I was thrown off by it at first, but have come to prefer it to “Come to my home sometime.”
Petrol – “Gas” has too many uses in the US. It might be the liquid you put in your car, or the thing you cook with, or the state of matter, etc. Petrol is a much tighter meaning.
Indianisms that are just as good as American equivalents
Do the needful – This one gets a lot of flack for being “typical nondescript Indian talk”, but we say “I’ll do what’s necessary”, or “Do what you have to do” very often. It’s a useful phrase for saying, “I’ll get it done.”
Queue – There is nothing wrong with using “line” as a verb (line up/make a line) or noun, but queue is equally fine. However, I find it hard to spell if you aren’t used to it.
Pickles – There really isn’t a happy medium on this one. In the US, it is a cucumber soaked in vinegar for a long time. In India, it is a variety of pastes that have more flavor in a teaspoon than a vat of Stove Top Stuffing mix. Live and let live here.
Non-veg – Again, context rules. In the US, we say “a person”, as opposed to “a vegetarian person”. But I get why the distinction is important in India.
Revert – This one might slightly win over “get back to me” due to its ability to reduce the number of words.
Alphabets – I’m torn on this one. Growing up, “alphabets” was just a mispronunciation of a popular breakfast cereal. However, the fact that “letters” has so many other meanings, makes alphabets more appealing.
Tuitions – In the US, we say “Private Lessons”. Tuitions for us means fees paid for education, which in India are just called “fees”. So, I could go either way on this one.
In the family way – Americans would say someone is “expecting” which is nice and tight and not usually misunderstood. However, this one is also a soft (although more cryptic) way to describe being pregnant.
Indianisms that should be dropped
Visiting Card – “Business card” makes more sense and requires no more effort.
Too good – I like the sound of an Indian saying this, but I really can’t help but admit that “really good” is better and creates less confusion.
Take a class – I have never been able to accept that this means teaching in India. I’ve tried, but it just doesn’t make any sense.
Write an exam – Again, every time I hear this one, I imagine someone writing out one long 30-page essay for a single question. I know there is a bit of truth to this in the education system, but “taking a test” seems better all around.
Schemes – “Programs” is such a nice word and doesn’t have any negative connotation with it (at least for us in the US).
Passed out – “My son just passed out.” Do you shake his hand or call an ambulance? This one should be dropped for “graduated”.
Out of station – What station? I can only assume this has some connection with trains, but I don’t see it. “Out of town” is clearer.
Intimate – This one is too closely connected to describing a relationship. “Tell me” is a better option.
Good name – Although largely the result of a mistranslation, I think it’s time to retire this one as well.
I have a doubt – Doubts are negative. Questions are objective.
Cum – See criteria #3