The semantics of change

I’m regularly called (often by myself) a pedant.  I’m criticised of nitpicking too much about the way words are used, when they’re used, and even about the words themselves

Some of this is partly due to the editorial habits ingrained in me by my work, partly due to the years of debating and other vocabulary competitions, and partly due to the general bawa nature of having some things just right.

Mostly, however, it’s because of an appreciation for the power of words.  More precisely, the power of a correctly – or incorrectly – used word.  And the power unleashed by simply replacing one word with another.  One teensy, weensy word, all on its own.

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There’s an alley that runs along the length of the building I currently live in.  Just wide enough for two cars, and connecting to another lane in this neighbourhood, it is used as a parking lot (the opposite side) and a thoroughfare (my side).  It’s not busy, but there’s always some activity going on – maids stopping briefly for a quick round of gossip, some hawker taking advantage of the shade provided by the buildings to arrange the wares on his cart, drivers lounging around waiting for their next assignment.

From my kitchen, if you look from just such an angle, you will occasionally spot men scrunch in between a car and the opposite wall, and begin spraying it with their personal blend of uric acid.

The first time I noticed this, I yelled at the person to shoo them away.  And then I realised it was one of the guys who drives a car for my neighbours.

And then it struck me.

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n., a person usually employed to perform domestic duties, or as a personal attendant.

In India, people still have servants.
Singular: Cook, maid, cleaner, gardener, chauffeur.
Collective: Servant.

In India, people still have servants. They may be employed to perform specific tasks, but they’re still servants.  Not domestic help, not house staff, servants.

But that’s ok, right?  It’s not as if it’s a bad word.  It’s not as if it’s derogatory or insulting. I mean, now you’re just talking political correctness.

Except it is. Because the real meaning of the word is ‘one who serves’.  Not one who works for you, or is employed by you, but one who serves.  Serves you.  While you receive their services.  Like some feudal lord whose only claim to being fair and decent is waving their top hat in the direction of some plebs.

So what? It’s not like I’m mistreating them. I pay them a wage, and they do the work, and that’s that. So what’s with all this title business?

Uh huh.  So why don’t we take this nice shiny Assistant Vice President title away from you and call you a servant of whichever company you happen to be working for, ok?  No?  Really no?  Even with puppy eyes and cherry on cake?  Oh, because you’re an employee?


… it’s the small things.  Yes, terming your cook ‘house help’ instead of ‘servant’ may seem as the epitome of political correctness gone wrong, but what it really is the refusal to give such workers the dignity they deserve.

Because this is what leads to employers giving them tea, but in a cup that’s always kept separately.   Because this is what leads to employers to letting them watch TV with them, but always ensuring it’s a channel of the former’s choice.  Because this is what leads to employers never ever letting such a worker sitting on the same chair or couch as they do, but instead letting them sit on the floor or at best, on a stool.   Because this is what leads to people saying sentences like “They even eat the same food as we do”. Even.

And because this is what leads to employers not caring where their permanent, on-duty-daily-for-10-hours chauffeur goes when the call of nature beckons, despite knowing that the entire neighbourhood they live in has no public toilet.

Because they’re servants, right? Who cares about what they think as long as they do the work.  After all, there are thousands more where they came from right? And they should be thankful (thankful!) to even have this job with the economy in the state it is, right?  And it’s not like this is a business and besides, they’re being paid, right?


If somebody works in your house, they are your cooks, your gardeners, your maids, your chauffeurs, your kids’ nannies, your major domo, your assistant, your cleaner.

They are your employees, not your servants.  And you are not their master.  And this isn’t the 1800s.

Say it and say it and correct those who don’t, because the word changes the perception changes the thought changes the world.

And maybe, maybe, one day I will not have to hold my nose while walking down this alley outside my house, because some employers might offer to let their staff use the toilets in their house.