Down in Jungleland: Mind Your Language

Down in Jungleland: Mind Your Language

What the ways we refer to nature and animals in our conversations tell about us.

What the ways we refer to nature and animals in our conversations tell about us.
What the ways we refer to nature and animals in our conversations tell about us.

As a writer, I’ve always been conscious of the fact that there usually is a right word for every — and any — thing you might want to describe.

But often, these “right” words may, on scrutiny, turn out to be “wrong”. This is especially true when it comes to references to nature, and this speaks volumes of our attitude towards it. I was dimly aware of this, too. For instance, I knew that I ought to be careful when I call an obnoxious person an “animal” or a whole bunch of them (99 per cent of Delhi’s drivers) “junglies”. But it was all brought bang-up in close focus by a book I recently read, Wild – An Elemental Journey, by Jay Griffiths, which ought to be a mandatory reading for anyone interested — and not interested — in nature.

The English (and other) language/s have been uncharitable to the natural world, reflecting our attitude towards it. Apart from calling you an “animal”, I can upset your sentiments by calling you a whole string of animal names: donkey, ass, mule, camel, monkey, pig, goose, baboon and so on… And in Hindi, you’ll respond, no doubt, with gadha, khota, suar ka bachcha, bhains, and worse. And all that the aforementioned donkeys, asses, buffaloes and pigs et al would like to do is to try and live out their lives as peacefully as possible and stay out of our way… Even the plant world does not escape: a dimwit is a “vegetable” or a “cauliflower”.

The rot runs deeper. When something is made dirty, we say it’s soiled, which comes from “soil”. Yet without soil, no plant, and hence any other living creature, can survive. We need soil and we need dirt and to denigrate them is well… only human? We really are the clods.


When a politician is cast out, the press love to say, he or she’s been wandering about in the “political wilderness” (like a homeless donkey, no doubt), not realising that wildernesses are usually very beautiful places and why should anyone want to send a politician there? What we really mean, of course, is “political wasteland”. (Which alas is also what a lot of politicians make out of wildernesses and is why they ought not to be sent there.)

The prejudice extends to people who live in the “wild” or closer to nature than people living in say Mumbai or Los Angeles or London. Heath-dwelling people or those who lived in a pagus (a Latin word meaning a small village) became heathens and pagans… The word “savage” comes from silvaticus, from the Latin language — meaning of woods and trees, which is telling enough. Villain apparently came from villein, a word of Latin orgin meaning rustic, and the root of the word is from “villa”, a place where someone lived.

We don’t like, and usually are afraid of, the dark. And have so associated it with evil: we write about dark deeds and shady deals. Yet, and I think Griffiths says this best, “…all good things are cradled in darkness first, seeds and babies, sleep’s dreams and the heart’s love, compost and starlight.”

Thankfully, all is not lost and the English language does pay tribute to nature too. Trees have, for long, been associated with knowledge.

Thus, a book has leaves, a small book (or your exam sheet) is a leaflet, ideas take root, avid readers are bookworms, you branch out into a new area of work or study, and now, of course, there’s from where you can order your Kindle (and Griffiths’ book). The word intelligent comes from inter and legere, with a Latin etymology, which means both “read” and “gather”. And gather means “to collect” (fruits, for example) and “to understand” what “to kindle” means, for example.

Happily (and ironically), even automobile and plane manufacturers have recognised and paid tribute to nature and named their products after natural phenomena or animals. Thus, we’ve had the Ford Mustang, the Plymouth Barracuda, the Chevrolet Stingray, the VW Beetle and Sirocco, the Fiat Panda, and the Lamborghini Khamsin jamming up our roads, and Falcons, Hurricanes, Harriers and Tornadoes tearing up our skies, to name a few.

And from natural phenomenon to ultra- and super-natural: we also have — or had — the Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, Silver Shadow, Silver Ghost, Silver Spirit, Silver Seraph and Phantom…

As for me: well if I ever call someone an “ulloo di patthi”, let it be clear, it’ll be a term of endearment.

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher