What’s the Good Word?

“What’s a good word? A good word is the right word in the right place at the right time. Each of the thousands of different words in our vocabulary has a special job of its own, and that’s why it’s important to learn as much as we can about the good words and how to use them. Are you ready to find out about some of them? Good! Let’s go!” This is how part of the introduction to the song “What’s The Good Word” happens in the Long-Play record of the same title released by Peter Pan Orchestra and Chorus in 1963.

Taking off from there was a Canadian show of the same name that was televised for four years from 1972. Soon after came India’s first all-English television show of the same name again, hosted by Sabira Merchant so professionally on Doordarshan for 15 years.

Words are fun for many of us. Some people buy the Reader’s Digest just for their monthly test-your-vocabulary page, It Pays to Increase Your Word Power. Others get newspapers featuring games such as where you make words from 9-letter wheels. Then there’s Scrabble, the classic word game on a board for friends and family, now available on handheld devices, so you can play alone too. It’s a huge learn-and-have-fun world of words out there.

The best part is, a good vocabulary is a strong promise of a better future because studies have found links between intellectual depth and word power. Research has shown that the brain actually changes as you learn more words and express your thoughts with more refinement. You become smart, setting yourself up for improved professional chances. Such progress can be shown on a monitor.

This is not to say that people who have a problem with words are dumb or guaranteed to fail. Not at all. We know that dyslexia is a condition that challenges its victims to read and write. But when things are read out to them, some of them do not have a difficulty at all. Others improve with the help of phonics, a teaching approach that co-relates sounds with alphabets. Many people have combated dyslexia and gone on to have successful careers. This includes not only Singapore’s ex-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, but entrepreneur Steve Jobs, painter Pablo Picasso, actor Tom Cruise, and physicist Albert Einstein. Why, even people working with words, like authors Jules Verne of France and John Irving of the United States have had such disabilities. Dyslexics often have other skills which can be exploited for advancing their careers and enjoying a fulfilling life. It is just such a dyslexic child who has phenomenal painting skills that form the subject of the film Taare Zameen Par (2007).

That’s about people who have special skills. For the rest of us, the world of words can be beautiful. It is therefore delightful to know that Indian kids are doing so well in the spellings and meanings area. This is particularly true of our kids in the USA, where such tests are calibrated and the winners celebrated.

On 31st May 2018, for the 11th year running, Indian kids dominated the annual championships of the Scripps National Spelling Bee championship. The 93-year-old contest not only tests people for spellings but also the origins and meanings of words. This year the winner was 14-year old Karthik Nemmani from Texas. His final correctly-spelt word was ‘koinonia’ meaning Christian communion. This was televised on ESPN in the USA and the boy took home an award of 42000$. The runner-up was a 12-year girl named Naysa Modi, also of Indian origin, as was the 2nd runner-up, Abhijay Kodali. There were over 500 contestants in this event.

We are ignoring the success that came the way of children of Indian origin just a bit before the above. This was the National Geographic Bee Scholarship, which tests knowledge of Geography and carries a prize of 50000$. The winner here was Venkat Ranjan, followed by Anoushka Buddhikot and Vishal Sareddy. Phew!

That’s great news, but now how about you? You are not being tested here for spellings or meanings of words, but do you recall these film songs in your unsupervised environment? They all have to do with words and spellings:

  • ABCDEF bhi jaane na hum (Sabita Banerjee, Suman/Darwaza, 1954)
  • ABC, ABC mere sapnon mein chori-chori aaya karo ji (Asha, Kishore/Ilzaam, 1954)
  • C-A-T cat, cat maane billi (Kishore, Asha/Dilli Ka Thug, 1958)
  • Likh padh padh likh, likh padh ke (Geeta, Usha/Kangan, 1959)
  • Ee se banti imli (Rafi, Asha/Kya Yeh Bambai Hai, 1959)
  • Likho padhoge to aage badhoge (Lata, Rafi, Sheikh Mukhtar, Honey Irani/Barood, 1960)
  • Alif zabr aa aa alif zer ae ae (Rafi, Sudha/Love In Simla, 1960)
  • L-O-V-E, Love! Love ka matlab hai pyaar (Rafi, Asha/Love In Simla, 1960)
  • Ka se kul duniya hamaari (Asha/Chandi Ki Deewar, 1964)
  • A for Apple B for baby (Manna Dey, Asha/Sadhu Aur Shaitan, 1968)
  • ABCD chhodo nainon se naina jodo (Lata/Raja Jani, 1972)
  • L-O-V-E Love ka matlab prem (Kishore, Usha Khanna/Bekhabar, 1983)
  • Sa se banta hai saathi (Kishore, Asha/Yaadgaar, 1984)
  • ABCDEFG hum bolega (Kasam Dhande Ki, 1990/Amit Kumar)
  • ABCDEFG dil mera aake le lo ji (Udit, Kavita/Anari, 1999)
  • ABCDEFG are G se ghanti baj rahi hai (Shailendra Singh, Usha Mangeshkar/Maqaar, 1986)
  • ABCDEFG padh lo pyaar ki aa aa ee (Alka Yagnik/Kanoon Apna Apna, 1989)
  • ABCDEFGH PPPP piya (Alka Yagnik, Udit Narayan/Prem Deewane, 1992)
  • ABCDEFG…XYZ (Udit Narayan, Hariharan, Shankar Mahadevan, Hema Sardesai/Hum Saath Saath Hain, 1999) 

The inability to read and write isn’t only about dyslexia. It may have to do with illiteracy or even functional illiteracy. The difference is this: a basic illiterate person may not know how to spell or read even easy words such as bat or cat in any language. A functionally illiterate person may know how to spell such words and what they mean, but will be unable to handle a sentence such as “The cat sat on Virat Kohli’s bat”. Functionally illiterate people cannot, for example, read the instruction on the back of a can of soup. Or articles such as this one.

The illiteracy rate in India, according to 2011 figures was 26%, but global experts reckon we have 70% people who are functionally illiterate. That compares poorly with much of the west. The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) is a body of a few dozen countries which aim to learn from each other and promote the social and economic lot of people around the world. It is famous for its statistical surveys on a wide variety of subjects like the perception of corruption, level of democracy and peace, human development, economic opportunities etc. Its 2013 survey tabled a startling discovery, that 47% of the adult population in Italy was functionally illiterate, the highest among its member countries. That accounts for the country’s small circulation of newspapers.

But Italy’s 47% is much better than India’s 70%. One wonders if that’s some consolation for the Italians who live in India.


Originally published in DNA Jaipur on 17 June 2018, page 13 http://epaper2.dnaindia.com/index.php?mod=1&pgnum=1&edcode=131002&pagedate=2018-06-17

Featured image: Karthik Nemmani.

11 thoughts on “What’s the Good Word?

  1. Manek- visiting and revisiting your blog – I found one song missing. However I don’t know if it qualifies ,as it has numbers and not words- its your take== Kagaz ke Phool- 1959===ek do tin ,char aur panch ,chhah aur sat , ath aur nau , ek jagah sab rahate the, jhagade the par un me sau

  2. ‘The best part is, a good vocabulary is a strong promise of a better future because studies have found links between intellectual depth and word power. Research has shown that the brain actually changes as you learn more words and express your thoughts with more refinement. You become smart, setting yourself up for improved professional chances. Such progress can be shown on a monitor.” So true. Each word has a built-in visual. The moment I learn a new word, I add a new visual to the aggregate of visuals that my mind carries. Even more important is that the new visual does not stand alone, it has a nuanced collateral connect with many of the existing visuals. Each word gained is thus accretion to intellect. In seventies, I was subscribing to the Readers Digest primarily to improve my word power. In my case, a word gained was not just a marginal help, that often opened a new world of ideas, for, at that point of time, I hardly knew any English. I still remember, I tried to read Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd in order to increase my word power. I soon realized that I was more sunk in the dictionary than in the book. The book that helped me was Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People.

    Your article Manek is essentially non-cinematic. It is brilliantly crafted and is extremely though provoking. The para on literacy in particular engaged me. My take is that poverty and illiteracy are in direct proportion. Somehow, literacy must sub-serve my existential concerns. I quote two examples.

    My brother-in-law was posted as manager in a rural branch of the Union Bank located in Jaunpur District of UP. It was way back in early eighties. There he discovered that an overwhelming majority of the account holders was illiterate and could not sign the bank instruments. Praphul Kumar ( my brother in law ) is a man of ideas. He consulted the district authorities and launched a programme titled : mera cheque, mere hakshatakshar ( My cheque, my signature ). Under the programme, the illiterate customers were motivated to attend the adult education classes that were run in the building adjacent to the Bank. The stated objective of the programme was to give the customers skill, enough to sign their respective cheques. The programme was a huge success as the adult students found the literacy imparted relevant to their existential concerns.

    The other example. A punjabi friend of mine ( Saigal ) opted to learn Tamil under the three language formula. Gave up as he found the language beyond him. Circumstances took us to different places and I met him again after about a decade. What intrigued me was the fact that he was speaking to the woman with him ( his wife ) in a language of which not a single word I followed. He revealed that his wife is a Tamilian and because of that he picked up her language just incidentally. The man who made no headway in a formal class just picked the language incidentally. Existential compulsion.

    Sorry Manek, my comments carry too many personal details and that must have bored you. But I could not help – your article is so engaging. Thanks.

    1. Trust Manek to come out with something “new” every week – never mind if it is non-cinematic to a large extent.

      As for the two examples that you put across Vijay Ji, it is my strong belief that essentially it is education which is going to alleviate poverty and that in turn can happen only when stress is on literacy and stress on quality education. E.g., under the Right to Education, there is no point in churning out students who cannot even write a simple sentence even at the high school level. Therefore when they complete higher education, their base and roots remains weak. This explains the unemployability of a vast majority of them when they try to join the workforce flaunting their degress.

      In my view, we talk of excellence but do not stress on it enough at the basic level of primary and secondary education. And those who excel once they join the work force, feel cheated when after having slogged for years they are cheated in the garb of political expediency when the dilution of minimum criteria is resorted to.

      1. Balbir, I try to write about people directly involved with our cinema and its music. Sometimes it is about musical instruments. At other times, the ideas musicians brought to the studios. But many things that don’t seem directly connected to our films are in fact connected if you see them as I see them. Here for instance, are Indian kids doing us proud in their spellings and meanings of words. My story thus is about spellings and meanings of words in our films. Have I spoken about learning maths or moral science or geography? I do sincerely see a direct connect, a direct relevance.

    2. Vijay, loved your recall of the two existential compulsions. And also this part, “Each word has a built-in visual. The moment I learn a new word, I add a new visual to the aggregate of visuals that my mind carries. Even more important is that the new visual does not stand alone, it has a nuanced collateral connect with many of the existing visuals. Each word gained is thus accretion to intellect.” It’s extraordinary how you see things and then bring those thoughts to the table _()_ And btw, I feel like listening to many more of your experiences, your thoughts. So bored? Me? no!!! 🙂

  3. What an interesting and timely topic for us here, Manek, as these National Spelling Bee and National Geographic Bee winners are being celebrated! As far as the functionally illiterate population of this world is concerned, you may or may not know but that percentage is quite high here in the US. I don’t have the numbers but we come across such people in our daily lives all the time. Even though public education is free for all here, many kids go through the school system without ever learning reading or writing at an adult level. These are the people who perhaps struggled in school and fell through the cracks, were high school dropouts etc.
    As I was reading it, I was curious to know how you would connect this to film music. 🙂 Your articles are sometimes like whodunits…and I refuse to read the last page first!
    You did it again. Congratulations. Like Dilip Apte ji here, I doff my hat too.
    And from one word-lover to another – many thanks for presenting the world of words so refreshingly!

    1. You love words too Monica, I know, and just this morning you introduced me to a new word: logophile, one who loves words 🙂 I’m delighted you get the whodunit feel in my essays. That’s wonderful for a writer, to get such a comment from a wonderful writer herself _()_ 🙂

  4. I was an ardent fan of ‘What’s the Good Word ‘ hosted by Sabira Merchant and used to eagerly wait every week for the show. Only later , I came to know that she is also responsible for the diction of all Beauty Contestant participants. Reader’s Digest , the newspaper crosswords, tons and tons of books and of course scrabble – Been there and done that. Tried everything to improve my vocabulary but my diction always failed me . It was pure ‘Desi’ all the time.
    I also followed the National Spelling Bee championships , telecast after Maunmohan Singh liberated the economy [??????? ] and we Indians came to know about Archie’s Birthday Cards , Mother’s Day , Father’s Day etc. etc. Many people may not know that P V Narshima Rao was a linguist who knew 14 languages and could have given Shashi Tharoor a run for his English, though he is just about credited with opening the Indian Economy.
    Apologies for this aside Manek

    Enough about that . You have again dwelt upon a subject, which simpletons like me cannot even fathom. Week after week , month after month, I wait to see if there is any staleness or laxity in your blogs, but they are as fresh as RaGa’s one liners every other day [ although with all honesty serious enough to be read and shared]
    I doff my hat to you Manek

    1. “RaGa’s one liners” he he he 🙂 Thanks Dilip, I take off my hat for you too!

      And I did notice the “Maunmohan Singh” part too 🙂

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