The venerable Oxford English Dictionary, (OED) with its database of more than 600,000 words is considered to be a comprehensive and authoritative record of the English language. In 2013, the OED’s word of the year was ‘selfie’ - a photograph taken of oneself with a smart phone or webcam, and uploaded onto a social media website. In 2015, OED’s word of the year was, unusually, not a word, but a pictograph or emoji, showing a face shedding tears of joy. OED’s word of the year for 2016 has still not been revealed, but I wonder if a word that has quietly crept into the august Oxford Dictionary in September 2016, will come up trumps. The word is ubiquitous and engaging. It’s a word that’s as effective when it’s whispered, as when it’s shouted. Keralites and Tamilians are familiar with it, because their conversations are peppered liberally with this handy, expressive, and versatile word – aiyo.
The OED defines ‘aiyo’ as a word that’s used to express distress, regret, or grief like ‘Oh no!’ or ‘Oh dear!’ This rather succinct and concise definition fails to adequately express the dramatic power of a word that can convey many different emotions, depending on how it’s used, and most importantly, how it’s pronounced. When you cut your finger accidentally with a kitchen knife, no word can express your pain and dismay like a loud howl followed by a long ‘aiyo!’ When something’s wrong, when you are ill, or have forgotten something important, the power of an ‘aiyo’ to convey woe is unmatched – “Aiyo! I have such a terrible headache,” or “Aiyo, I think I left my mobile phone in the taxi!” Aiyo is an elegant, chatty (and sometimes catty) word that does not cause offence since it’s not abusive, or considered foul language –“Aiyo! That colour does not suit you at all,” or “Aiyo! Why did you buy that coat? It makes you look so fat!”
When aiyo is used as a swear or curse word, it conveys so much more emotion and feeling than a mere ‘drat’ or a terse ‘damn’ - “Aiyo! The ATM is not working again!” or “Aiyo! This is the third time this month that the maid has bunked work.”
A polite exclamation of surprise like ‘oh my god,” or ‘gosh!” cannot pack the powerful emotions that an “Aiyo! What’s going on here?” can. Aiyo, a universal expression used everywhere, can be used as a question, or an exclamation to convey fear, worry, and distress – “Aiyo, I wonder –will my plane leave on time?” and “Aiyo! I’m afraid to go past that house at dusk- they say it’s haunted.” In situations that require more sound effects and louder laments, ‘aiyo’ easily converts itself to the more powerful and theatric ‘ayyayyo’.
Aiyo is a great word for expressing sympathy or commiserating with another’s loss. “Aiyo, I’m so sorry to hear that your father passed away,” and “Aiyo, I heard that you were unwell. Hope you are feeling better now.” An aiyo can express exasperation - “Aiyo, this is the third time this week that I’ve lost my specs,” and concern - “Aiyo, did you get hurt when you fell down?”
As a word to show irritation, peevishness, and annoyance, aiyo, (which lends itself superbly to voice modulation) is brilliant -“Aiyo, why do you keep nagging me to get the cistern fixed? I’ve told you I’ll do it!” Aiyo is a harmless enough word, but when used as a prefix before a gossipy statement, it becomes charged with innuendo - “Aiyo, did you hear about what happened last week to Mrs. So and So? Isn’t it unfortunate?”
Despite its many levels and shades of meaning, it was a surprise when aiyo, long considered colloquial, slang language in South India, became a pukka word that’s officially part of the Queen’s English. Aiyo, I never thought it would happen. If aiyo has been deemed fit for inclusion in the Oxford English dictionary, can another popular slang word ‘poda’ (get lost) be far behind? You never know. Aiyo, English is such a crazy language.