By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Articulating Alien Expressions : Repondez S'il Vous Plait, Ditto, Et Cetera!

Taking a look now and then at the oldest files in my old records, I invariably get a thrill to see the way some of my initial literary efforts have survived the test of time and still look and sound as fresh as they did when I wrote them.  Here's a vintage sketch which was published by THE HINDU almost 50 years ago.

I hadn't expanded or explained the standard abbreviations of the Latin, French and Italian expressions figuring in the text because they were quite familiar to all educated Indians who could read an English newspaper as a normal routine  --  thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary and/or the Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, which listed selected foreign-language terms with English translation.  But as this blog is read in several countries where the norms of English-learning may be different, I am providing a useful glossary. 

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R.S.V.P.  --   Repondez s'il vous plait --  (French :  pronounced Rayponday seel voo play)  =  'Reply if it pleases you', just  meaning "Please reply". 

e.g.  --  exempli gratia  --  (Latin :  for sake of example)  =  for example. 

ibid.  --  ibidem  --  (Latin : in same place)  =  same source mentioned previously.

op. cit.  --  opere citato  --  (Latin :  work cited)  =  same work mentioned previously.

viz.  --  videlicet  --  (Latin : in other words)  =  namely.

do.  --  ditto  -- (from Italian :  detto = said)  =  same as above (in lists/tables).

etc.  --  et cetera  --  (Latin : and similar things)  =  and so on.

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YOU'LL probably find it very amusing, but I did spend several years of my schooldays under the honest impression that R.S.V.P. was a lorry service. The only explanation I can offer for this curious mix-up is the fact that we have a well-known lorry service down South called S.R.V.S. --  and in those days a popular Tamil magazine used to carry a prominent advertisement for them on its back cover every week.  So, whenever my parents received an invitation card bearing the discreet legend 'RSVP'  in a corner, I invariably thought that an RSVP truck would be hired for the occasion, presumably to drop the car-less guests back home. 

Another weird abbreviation with which I had a great deal of trouble in my childhood was 'e.g.' --  I used to imagine that it was some kind of mysterious egg, which for some unfathomable reason was alluded to in all kinds of unlikely contexts. It did occur to me once that probably the author was suffering from hiccoughs, and had to relieve the strain by articulating  "eg. . . eg. . ." every now and then.  This idea fortunately didn't survive for long, but the egg complex had deeper roots, and persisted almost into teen-age.

Yet another such misunderstanding, which I developed at the shamefully late age of fifteen or sixteen, concerned 'Ibid.' and 'Op. cit.'  I had just started reading books on heavy topics, with endless foot-notes in them ;  and in whichever text I looked at, on whatever subject, I found copious quotations from Ibid. and Op. cit.  Those were days of voracious reading, and the conviction grew steadily in my mind that Ibid and Op cit were two tremendous books of wisdom, perhaps even more formidable than the Encyclopaedia Britannica.  Not being quite sure about it, however, I was too diffident to ask the librarian where they were stacked;  but I remember wasting a lot of time exploring the shelves and scanning the catalogues for these  twin colossal compilations.   

Strangely enough, I never had much trouble with that particularly tricky expression 'viz.'  --  but a junior stenographer who once used to work with me apparently did.  If you dictated "namely", he always took down and typed "namely", to the letter.  As no amount of explanation could make him understand that namely and viz. were one and the same thing, I began dictating 'viz.' plainly as "vizzzzzz. . . ."  It was rather taxing at first, but after some time I realized it was great fun merely to be intoning "vizzzzzz. . . . . ." during office hours :  oh, what a merciful, if momentary, escape from the dullness of decorum!  

But of course, there's equally good fun to be derived from lending an attentive ear to other people saying these alien expressions aloud.  I remember the Chief Accountant who used to mutter to himself "do, do.  . ." whenever he happened to bury his nose and his blue pencil in one of those ledgers which have as many dittos as debits.  I also remember the laconic stranger who sat next to me at a club dinner once.  He was a man of  few words, but what I found intriguing was the way he kept rounding off his measured utterances with the irrelevant and undignified admonition "Eat easy!"  At first I thought he was just trying to control his ravenous appetite with a bit of auto-suggestion, having probably picked up the idea from some Sunday paper.  But when he said it again over the coffee, when the only solid consumables on the table were the toothpicks, the truth suddenly dawned on me.  The gentleman had only been pronouncing 'ETC.', letter by letter!