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WHAT’S IN A NAME?

It couldn’t be true. Yet there it was, in a serious newspaper: the government of India — that is, Indian taxpayers — is to give Oxford University £3 million, some Rs 26 crores, to help Oxford set up a research centre into sustainable development, named after... Indira Gandhi.

Her? Fabricator and imposer of the 1975-77 Emergency and all that went with it? Now, I know not all Indians agree on this, and I admit my views may be biased by the effort I spent writing hither and yon to get an old friend, A.G. Noorani, freed from prison. I’d edited many of his columns for the Indian Express in the early 1960s, and a true patriot he plainly was. But he told the truth as he and his cupboards of documents saw it. Into prison he went.

Happily he was fairly soon out, and I imagine the Emergency is hardly an ever-present memory 35-odd years later. Clearly not in Oxford. Maybe Mrs Gandhi truly cared about sustainable development, especially if the name, Sanjay, could figure in it. Maybe a Congress-led government can be excused for toadying to the party dynasty. But a major British university (which is to put in some £5.5 million of its own — de facto, mainly British taxpayers’ — money on top)? I was shocked.

What next, I wondered? Bought by further gifts, would Oxford give us the Blair Bhavan of Truth and Peace? It could expand abroad. How about a Dyer College of Crowd Control, sited in Amritsar? The Thackeray Think-Tank of Ethnic Tolerance, in Mumbai? The Rajiv Roadshow of Weapons Procurement, touring Switzerland? A Kennedy-Clinton Colloquium on Conjugal Fidelity inside the presidential plane, Air Force One? The Hitler Institute of Interfaith Dialogue in Tel Aviv? The Assad Assembly of — no, I had to stop.

Words and myths

Happily, my thoughts wandered on, over the names that have added words to our language. You can make homeric efforts, like the father of Greek epic poetry, or quixotic ones, like Cervantes’ Don Quixote. You may win a pyrrhic victory — Pyrrhus, a Greek king around 300 BC, found winning battles cost him more than losing — against your gargantuan appetite, named after Rabelais’s voracious giant, Gargantua. Or fall mesmerically — F.A. Mesmer was an 18th/19th century Austrian doctor keen on hypnosis — in platonic love.

We owe several such adjectives to ancient mythology: erotic, from Eros, the old-Greek version of Cupid; panic, noun or adjective, from the Greek god of the woods, Pan; volcanic, via volcano, from Rome’s fire god, Vulcan; martial, from Mars, the Roman god of war.

Those metaphoric adjectives never start with capital letters. Nor do the nouns alcaics and sapphics, two verse-forms named after ancient Greek poets, though both get a capital when used as adjectives for some feature of the poets themselves or their work (except in the rare sapphic love, today’s no-capital lesbian ditto, after Lesbos, the island where Sappho lived).

In contrast, some words are seldom truly metaphoric, and always get a capital: Wildean wit, Euclidean geometry, Confucian philosophy. Ditto those meaning the period or author of the noun concerned: Elizabethan, Shakespearean, Napoleonic, for example.

Some are uncertain: I’d write kafkaesque bureaucracy or dickensian squalor, not those writers’ own qualities but things described by them. Many people use capitals there. A few do so for machiavellian, from the 1500-ish Florentine, Niccolo Machiavelli. And there is no rule for some words: you can be gaullist or Gaullist, marxist or Marxist, stalinist or Stalinist, though usually Maoist.

For the record, I've never met Gandhian — as in M.K., not Indira — except with a capital, whether metaphorical or not.

thewordcage@yahoo.co.uk