Some unique Chennai words and phrases

The Man from Madras Musings, in the course of a varied life has travelled far and wide and has come to the conclusion that Centum which is a gobbledegook equivalent of getting 100% marks in an examination, is a word that is found only in Madras/Chennai vocabulary. By this MMM does not mean that it is a part of Madras Bhashai from which we get gems such as regent (for decent), assault (for brazen) and feed (for speed). Centum is in a class by itself. It is also wholly middle-class. It has nothing to do with the rich (MMM has never heard a nabob of Madras state that he got centum on his investments) and as for the have-nots, centum has not yet penetrated their vocabulary. Centum, for the uninitiated also does not have anything to do with cent, which in Chennai is a word in currency, though not as a unit of currency but as a measure of land. But MMM is digressing, his brain no doubt addled by the heat.

To get back to Centum, it is a word that is at least three generations old. In all families, you will hear parents telling their children that everyone in the family from great-grandfather downwards scored Centum in all their examinations thereby qualifying themselves as apples of teachers’ eyes. Not only that, continue the parents, the same is expected from their own children, so that family traditions are kept up. It would break great-grandfather’s heart they say, pointing to the beady-eyed mustachioed gent gazing down from the oval frame, his turban towering over him. All this is said by the parent in the secure knowledge that the family academic report cards have all been destroyed and so there is no chance of the young wide-eyed innocent ever getting to know the truth. And in no other city is it said but in Chennai. Where did we pick it up from MMM wonders. The Centum was usually accompanied by a double-promotion which usually meant that our ancestors completed twelve years of schooling in six or seven. Why then did we not see toddlers in college you may well ask. That was because of another unique Chennai term – underage. This was what the college authorities waited for. Having caught the underage in the act of getting into college, they sent he or she home and made the person cool his or her heels till he or she had attained the correct age for admission. Which in MMM’s view beat the whole purpose of the double-promotion. This in turn rendered Centum fairly useless- null and void you may say.

Eversilver is yet another English word heard only in Chennai. In all parts of the world it is referred to only as stainless steel. But in this our city, MMM has often heard people saying that they were going to a shop selling stainless steel items to buy eversilver vessels. Where did this word come from? MMM is of the view that eversilver must have been an early brand of stainless steel which became the generic term in Chennai. Talking of eversilver always brings to mind the tumbler. In other places it is usually referred to as a glass. But like Centum, the tumbler is also on its way out and is not heard all that often.

Two unique Chennai words that may never die out are tiffin and co-brother. Tiffin, which usually means a heavy snack in Chennai, apparently comes from an obsolete English word – tiffing, which meant a small sip. It belongs in the same class as Co-Brother (brother-in-law), another Chennai word which always brings to MMM visions of Co-Fathers and Co-Mothers, a kind of commune where everyone worked for the common weal.

A colleague with whom MMM discussed these words and phrases also suggested ‘morning ablutions’ which she felt was a quaint mid-Victorian term still in use in Chennai. She also referred to a friend who if called to the phone early in the morning would excuse himself on the grounds that he was still abluting! The colleague also suggested that MMM include a phrase unique to Chennai that meant that women were er… not at home. But MMM ruled it out on the grounds that the Chief would not approve. Period.

Horror Film

Every once in a while, the Man from Madras Musings is dragged kicking, screaming and protesting to the movie theatre by his family. MMM, who would rather be curled up with a good book, finds the driving to the theatre, the struggle for a car-park slot, the rough and tumble of getting into the theatre, the sitting idle for three hours and then the rough and tumble of getting out, the struggle to get out of the car-park slot and the drive home all very tedious. But he has so far not been successful in making his nears and dears (another Chennai expression found on invitation cards) understand this.

And so, off MMM went to the movies, though not without a mild grumble. Passing lightly over the drive, the struggle and the rough and tumble, let MMM take you to the moment when he, his family members having gone in long before, stood at the doorway to the theatre proper, waiting for the usher to check MMM’s ticket and let him in. “There is an unidentified bag below my seat” said a high-pitched voice to the attendant, who simply looked up and mumbled something about shortly coming along to inspect. MMM simply froze on first hearing what the high-pitched voice said and became petrified on seeing the carelessness of the attendant. In fact you would not be far wrong if you thought MMM was a statue put up by his admirers. At which point someone from behind asked MMM if he was planning to take all day and so MMM, the film having begun, felt his way down the aisle and sat at his designated seat. MMM’s family was to the left and when he turned to the right, what should he hear but the high-pitched voice, which evidently had forgotten the unidentified bag and was asking someone for popcorn. And sure enough, when MMM looked below, there was the bag itself, in all its glory.

From then on, MMM concentrated little on the film. His imagination focussed exclusively on what kind of bomb that bag could contain, who could have planted it (MMM even imagined the high-pitched voice was that of a suicide bomber) and what could the consequences possibly be. He could imagine the headlines in the papers. He thought of the Chief, waiting impatiently for the next installment of this column. And then MMM closed his eyes in prayer only to be woken up by his good lady who poked him in the ribs saying that the movie had been most enjoyable and did MMM not think so? Nothing could have exceeded the speed with which MMM got out of the theatre. Rockets could have taken their lessons from him. But in MMM’s view he is through with movies. This episode completes his case against them.

Parking –No Parking

The Man from Madras Musings believes that we in Chennai get the kind of traffic we deserve and our idea of any discipline is observed more in the breach. The accompanying photograph is an example.