Sunday, October 07, 2012

One has to protest...

I like obsessions; I have a few of my own. Some are even healthy. And most are acceptable. But what is with this polite obsession with the word "one"? I have tried, and then tried again. It all sounds very formal and all but why, exactly?

The other day, this fellow jumped up even as the plane touched down in Mumbai after a long flight. As he jumped up from his seat, he grabbed hold of the overhead locker as though if he didn't, it would fly off on its own. He then pulled his carry-on bag out of the compartment in under 3 seconds and beamed at everyone as though he had achieved a personal best time in "time lapse between touch down and bag recovery". Unfortunately, the plane braked hard as it touched down. The man flew and along with his recently reacquired bag, crashed into me, all arms and legs and bag! I thought to myself, "What an utter pillock" but smiled at him. I don't do anger at these things. I am now used to utter pillocks. 

He recovered, turned to me and said: "One is very sorry."

That's it. I lost my temper like anything.

"Arre! Are you sorry or are you not? Why hide behind the proud number one? Be a man. Say I am sorry, no? What is this ONE is sorry?"

So, I wasn't upset that he had acquired a PB that no one cared about other than he. I wasn't upset that he had flown across three rows of seats to crash into me. I wasn't upset that I was, by then, bleeding profusely from a gash in my eye; he had eye-gouged me in a manner a professional Rugby player would have been proud. I wasn't upset that my newly procured shirt shirt was now torn; the bag handle had made that contribution. But I was upset by his use of the word ONE. What was wrong with, "I am sorry"?

I am angry these days because we have acquired an unhealthy obsession for an inappropriate overuse of the word 'one'. This abuse is because of what I call political politeness. I think social scientists should start writing scholarly papers on political politeness (PP) as they did on that other insidious monster, political correctness (PC). PP is a deadly evil, I tell you. PP will make PC look like how a dictionary makes Shahid Kapoor's spelling look.

This use of 'one' enables us to escape from personal responsibility for things that we may have done wrongly. Like this "bags and arms and legs" fellow. He wasn't sorry; one was!

The other day I attended a wedding in Chennai. A board outside declared, "Welcome to one and all". What does that even mean? See what we Indians did? We took some usage of 'one' from the British and, much like democracy and the Westminster style of governance itself, we have mangled it, abused it and invented our own inappropriate use cases for that word.

The other day, a fellow said to me: “What time is one expected to be present?” I was stunned. And yes. Again, I got angry. I started shouting at that fellow like anything: "What is this? If you want to ask what time you have to be there then just ask that right? And why pick on the number one? It is a solitary fellow. A singular number. Not plural. It signifies one person, usually you. Also, why hide behind a number? It is a simple number. The Indians did not invent it. Indians only invented zero. Why abuse other numbers? If you want to abuse a number, abuse zero. It is yours!"

As a mathematician, I protest at this inappropriate abuse of a number. I have a right to protect the number from constant torture. 

It is not as if there are no other pronouns available to us. There is a very convenient I, a perfectly polite you and a wonderful we. Use those no?

What time is one expected to be present it seems. What if you and your friend wanted to present yourselves? Will you then ask, “So, what time will two have to be present?” No, no? That would be rather silly. So, use the direct pronoun next time. Please. 

Do not make me angry again. See what I did there. Did I say "Do not make one angry again?" No. Everyone needs to learn like that only: to use pronouns properly.

There are some uses that are correct. One can be used in non-specific, general, and non-direct advice. For example, the use of one in, "I don't believe one should disrespect elders" is appropriate. Try saying that as, "I don't believe I should disrespect elders". That doesn't sound right, does it? Firstly, the general advice is lost. Secondly, the statement, as altered, gives the impression that I am currently disrespectful of elders. 

Can you ever imagine Krishnamachari Srikkanth indulge in this political politeness nonsense? I mean, can you imagine the same guy who said “Boss, you just shut up ok?” saying “Ok tell me, what time should one be there to shut you up”? I greatly doubt it and if you can imagine it, you have a far more forgiving and fertile imagination than I do.  

Speaking of strange fellows, another strange fellow who is part of a volunteer team I run asked me the other day: “What does one have to do now on this project?” How was I supposed to reply to that? I knew, for instance, 10 people were supposed to be working on that project. The first thing that popped into my head was to ask him, “Oh, suddenly only one person is working on the project?” I also found myself wondering why this strange fellow was selfishly concerned only about one member from that group of ten. What will the rest do? 'Which one of the ten people was actually working?' I thought. See? The kinds of doubts that arise from this terribly inappropriate usage of the number one.

I am all for people who are self deprecating in their language. I cannot stand pompous people (and yes, I do not look at the mirror often either). I like people who do not sound self-obsessed and self-centred in their communication, but this is taking a bit too far, no? 

It is a little more acceptable if you are talking on behalf of a whole bunch of people. The ‘one’ in your sentence could actually stand for many and this could well be a plural pronoun. But my question is simple. Why? Can you not just say, “What time should we get to the show” instead of “What time should one get to the show”? What do people have against direct speech? It is the least of very big evils, certainly lesser than the atrocity inflicted on us by Himesh Reshamiyya's music.

The other day I was talking to one fellow... See? This is correct usage of the word one. Not the others. Yes, you can thank me later. Anyway, this fellow went on and on about how he kept failing in life. He then asked if I could mentor him. Till that point in the conversation, I was bored. But then, suddenly, I was bursting with unbounded joy. I had finally found a person to mentor. Earlier that year, I was beginning to beg people if I could mentor them. And true to my dislike of polite politeness, I did not go around asking, “Can one be your mentor”. I asked, "Can I please be your mentor? Please?" Till that point, everyone had said, “get lost”. One is used to getting snubbed routinely. (Got you there, didn’t I?) Okay, okay, I meant I am used to getting snubbed routinely.

Anyhow, that evening, I was ecstatic at being asked to be this boring fellow's mentor. Before he had an opportunity to rethink, I cheerfully and shamelessly said, “Of course, I can mentor you”. I immediately grabbed his hand and said, “Yes. When can I start? How much should I pay you?” I had almost signed him up as a ‘person to be mentored’ when he got on yet another soapbox and waxed eloquent about King Bruce and his Sisyphus-ian spider. I listened to it wondering, “Am I the mentor or is he”. In other words, “Is one the mentor or is the other one”. Then he presented me with the deal breaker. He said, “The moral of the story is that if one fails, then one must try harder next time.” 

I left him with a comment and a couple of questions, as is a mentor’s wont. “Who failed? I am sorry about being harsh but you failed. ONE did not fail. The number one, if you haven't noticed, has been a success all it’s life and it is about time you realized that.” 

-- Mohan

Ps: The 'person to be mentored' ran away at that point. It has been a few years since that conversation with my potential 'person to be mentored'. Do you think I am wasting my time refreshing my email waiting to hear from him?

Ps (10-Oct-2012): 
Subsequent to writing the piece, @yaavanoObba sent me the following (quite relevant) YouTube link.


  1. One is thoroughly delighted to read one's post. This is extreme oneness of the being!

  2. This is the first time one has visited your blog and one really loved this post :)
    Another thing I hate is the use of "myself" and "yourself" instead of "my" and "you"

  3. Wonder what prompted Richard Bach to write the book One.?
    You should plan on writing a sequel to this - "We" nailed it.

  4. One is certainly thankful Moon.

    Ruchira, Thanks. In a similar vein can't quite get people that introduce themselves as "Self Mohan". :)

    Gyanban: What an excellent idea!

  5. Reminds me of PGW's Psmith. Tended to use 'one' all the time.

  6. Delightful post! See, one has even braved the comment verification at the end to post one's comment. One normally eschews commenting on such blogposts that have comment verification.

  7. @Phoenixritu -- One does not know how ones blog post has comment verification. One must verify this! :)

  8. *I* have truly enjoyed *your* post!! (see, I did not assail your senses like the rest of the commentors!!) :D

  9. Haha, thanks Roshni! Lovely. :D

  10. One can't thank you enough for this bright piece of writing! Turned an otherwise stressful morning to a less stressful one :)