Take this news item from Turkey, about a misplaced character in an SMS sent by a husband to his estranged wife resulting in two gruesome deaths. Of course, a language where the omission of a single dot in a single word can completely change the meaning of a sentence is begging for trouble, but this is a universal problem. Those of us who use the Dictionary facility on our cellphones will know that a particular arrangement of letters can create two or more very different words, e.g. “awake” and “cycle”, or “ocean” and “madam”, and that this can cause confusion. If the sender isn’t careful, a perfectly harmless sentence like “Federer just crushed Djokovic in the semis” can come out reading “Federer just brushed Djokovic in the penis”. (Don’t ask me how I know this.)
This puts me in mind of an incident from a few years ago. Some of us had been invited to a colleague’s place for a debauched late-night party – it didn’t have to be debauched (you could choose to be well-behaved, sip a mocktail and check out by 11 PM), but the possibility was always open. It was an all-night affair at a large house, the sort of place where a hormonally charged couple seeking privacy might at any time stumble into an empty room together, accidentally bolt the door from within and then get down to playing “Doctor”.
One friend who didn’t know the host very well had a younger sister with no plans for the evening, so he asked someone else to check if he could take her along (since they weren’t planning to stay very late, he figured she wouldn’t be exposed to any of the murkier sub-plots that might ensue). “Can we bring Amit’s sister?” typed Rajesh into his phone, except that he wrote “Amits” as a five-letter word without the apostrophe and didn’t closely read what he was typing, so that the message that went forth was “Can we bring bogus sister?”
To make matters worse, our host, an expert in all sorts of shady party requests, interpreted “bogus sister” (or “fake sister”, take your pick) as “a girl of pliable morals, whom you wouldn’t want to publicly introduce as your steady – or even friend – but who is good for fooling around with at binges”. Human beings can be wonderfully inventive when it comes to slang and euphemism.
Thus it was that Rajesh, Amit and the latter’s sweet and innocent sibling had barely arrived when the host – already high on some obscure weed – leeringly asked her if she wanted an empty room immediately and if she would take turns with her two escorts or handle both of them at once. He also recited a short poem he had made up on the spot, which employed a series of salty Punjabi words and, at one point, rhymed “sister” with the Hindi “bistar” (bed). A nasty scuffle resulted – one that could certainly have turned out worse if there had been weapons at arm’s reach. It didn’t end as unhappily as the episode in Turkey, but there were no more parties (or at least none that our group came to know about) at this house for several months.
Not that we ever learn from these incidents. In an earlier post, I’ve mentioned the time I bought the DVD of The Pink Panther and hurriedly dashed off an SMS to friends asking if they wanted to see it over the weekend, only to have one of them call back and ask why I wanted to show him pink panties on a Saturday (or any other day for that matter). More recently, I conducted a fruitless online search for an intriguingly titled book after a friend messaged to ask “Have you read Phobia Deer, new book, sounds interesting”, only to discover that he was asking about Shobhaa De’s latest.