My former company driver was also our mailman. He communicated with his colleagues in a language that was half pidgin English and half what sounded like pigeon talk. That day he had been extra busy taking bundles of magazines to the post office.
‘How many times did you go to the post office today to mail the magazines?’ I asked him at the end of the day. ‘Twice? Thrice?’
‘Fourice’, he answered without batting a hair of his brow.
I was speechless for a few seconds – first, at the crassness of his usage, secondly, at the novelty of the word, and then suddenly at the wonderful discovery of a usage that opened up to me a whole new and limitless set of beneficial words.
English usage is one of the most sensitive subjects on this planet. Nothing on earth, for example, will ever persuade the British to sacrifice their u’s in their colours and their parlours, and the Americans would recoil at the thought of doubling the l’s in their traveling and labeling. But to accommodate their cousins across the Atlantic Ocean, the British, on the initiative of the Oxford editors, agreed among themselves to have at least one word in their vocabulary changed from a double ‘l’ to a single ‘l’. So, they chose ‘enroll’ and made its official spelling with one ‘l’: enrol. It was a most generous concession – considering the British’s affection for the extraneous letter – a friendly gesture to the concise-minded Americans.
Now, the goodwill vibes somehow traversed the ocean and reached the American shores. So around the same time the British were thinking about sacrificing an ‘l’ for their cousins, the Americans were having the same accommodative thoughts about the British.
The lexicographers, led by Noah Webster, gathered together and decided to dedicate one word in honor of their cousins. And from among the hundreds of thousands of choices before them, guess which word they finally agreed upon? Enrol. So the Americans, as a token of honor to their highly-lettered cousins across the ocean, accepted to carry the burden of an extra ‘l’ in their enroll.
It was only when the latest editions of the Webster and Oxford dictionaries appeared in the market did both the nations realize their O Henry kind of situation. Too late to recall their national lexicographs from the market, they let the words remain as they were in their respective dictionaries to this very day.
Which is why in the United Arab Emirates new students have to enroll in the American schools while in the institutions that follow the British curriculum they need to just enrol. (Maybe someone could make a film out of this episode in Anglo-American relations, and title it ‘American History XL’.*)
I have digressed a lot. Coming back to fourice, many a time in my writing life I have been stumped by the deficiency in the English vocabulary and the inefficiency in English usage. Consider this sentence, for example:
‘Parenting begins long before your precious child is conceived in the womb of his or her mother. And the kind of parent you have been to him or her long before he or she was born affects your child long after his/her birth.’
Have the British or the American grammarians, lexicographers, etymologists and linguists ever found a solution to their ugly language usages typified by the example above. They haven’t in the last half a millennium, and they arent going to for many centuries more.
It is not just deformed usages that our language authorities are guilty of overlooking. Superfluity is another of their lapses.
‘A good portion of the grain stacked in the public godowns are socked with rat urine. Every time you cook rice, you should take extra care to rinse it, not the usual twice or thrice recommended in the cookbooks, but at least four or five times to be assured it’s thoroughly cleansed of the vermin’s nuisance.’
Until my encounter with the pidgin English user, I would have let that sentence leave my editorial desk unchanged. Now, if I were to edit or write a similar sentence I would boldly do away with the prosaic word ‘times’ and just ‘ice’ the numbers. Efficient, sensible, logical, and economical – less two superfluous words.
Recently, I went for a prostate checkup. When the urologist asked me how many times I visited the bathroom in the night, I answered him, ‘at least thrice or fourice’.
‘What?’ uttered the befuddled doctor.
‘I mean, three or four times’. I knew from the look on his face the doctor wasnt ready for the ice thing yet.
‘I think you are going to need a prostate operation’, he answered.
Today, as I write this, I am minus a big chunk of my prostate, but I have been compensated with a much bigger hunk of an addition in my English usage – fourice, fivice, sixice…ad infinitice.
* American History X is one of the most unforgettable films produced in that country, depicting the chain-reaction of violence spawned by racism.