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Dhaka Tribune

In the ‘ostheer’ month of February

A list of Bengali words and terms which have undergone some radical transformation

Update : 21 Feb 2023, 11:17 AM

We are right in the heart of the month of language -- after the Corona period curtailed book fairs with grim sales and even grimmer expressions from publishers, 2023 Ekushey Book Fair promises to bring back the ebullience of the pre-pandemic days. 

Virus be damned! This year, Dhaka will be ablaze in the fire of spring while the Boi Mela is set to launch countless new writers. Naturally, all this excitement is driven by our beloved mother tongue, Bangla.

As Bangladeshis, we all know how relished the language is, and those who travel abroad and stumble across a fellow countrymen by chance almost inevitably feel a frisson of thrill, speaking Bangla thousands of miles away from home. A bond with a complete stranger is forged in seconds just by speaking the common language. 

Anyway, the Bangla that we speak today has undergone some really intriguing transformations and, if someone from the past is teleported to the present, several words used among the current day young may trigger a rather protracted state of bafflement. 

To cut to the chase, here's a list of Bengali words and terms which have undergone some radical transformation to mean things which can leave many a bit puzzled. Try using a few with those who are in their sixties; you will either get a blank look or a severe reprimand.

For foreigners who are currently living/working in Dhaka and various parts of the country, the list will prove helpful if you are eager to blend in with the young and the trendy or startle a local with your grasp of hip colloquial terms. 

I must start with the word ostheer because this has seen possibly the most drastic change of meaning. 

It actually means “restless” or “turbulent.” In the past, especially during the anti-autocratic movement spanning about nine years, ostheer shomoy was used to mean a period of volatility. That same phrase, in 2023, will mean something utterly different. 

Ostheer, for some inexplicable reason now means, “outstanding” or “sensational.” 

Therefore, if someone tells you s/he had an ostheer shomoy then you have to understand that the person is referring to an unforgettable experience. This is widely used, from referring to a delectable dish you tried at a restaurant to an engrossing film, which left you speechless with delight. 

Did you try the new Thai place, the food is ostheer! Or maybe your friend has bought a spanking BMW and in seeing the car, your reaction is: Mamma, ostheer, ostheer!  

It's a bit like the overused word: Awesome! In English, the modern usage of the word "wicked" comes close in comparison; this word now has a positive connotation with undertones of delicious vice. 

How do you like the new car? It's wicked, mate! Or, how was your time spent on a rented island? It was wicked!

The other word, which has the same meaning as ostheer and is a firm favourite among the teens is shei or sheirokom which literally means, like that.  

How this came to be a word describing something sublime calls for an in depth etymological research. 

The other day, while going through Dhaka University campus, I overheard three young girls talking animatedly about a guy, possibly the would-be boyfriend of one of the three.

“The guy is shei, dost!” exclaimed one, adding: He rides a sports bike, can play the flute, and is a budding poet! 

Ostheer, ostheer, cried out the others!    

Anything that you find sensational can be shei, starting from a book, to a song, to a new outfit. Its latest application, which I noticed was during a discussion about stellar exam results where sheirokom was given an added impetus with a new twist: Sheraaam! 

Wait a second, in cases where you see something totally out of this world, there's another phrase doing the rounds: Maatha noshto. The closest literal translation would be: "Brain malfunction.” 

Now this is to use when a top celebrity winks at you, asking (pleading?) you to take her out on a date. I mean, a brain short circuit is permissible, right? 

Or, when Bangladesh top order batsmen score two hundred without loss of a wicket: Maatha is noshto!

To wade into darker territory, the term giringi or giringibaaj is applied if one wants to refer to a sly, conniving person who is all sweetness and light but has a very scheming character underneath. 

Obviously, in joint families where machination filled TV soap operas are voraciously consumed daily, one will find several family members who sail under false colours or always try to drive wedges between people. 

Another word having the same meaning is clickbaaj which, I assume, has evolved from the English word "clique" meaning a close circle of people who never allow others into their midst. 

Surprisingly the English word, “colour" has come to describe something completely negative in Bangla. If you colour someone then you are vilifying that person or carrying out a smear campaign. 

A common line, which we hear in Bangla: Why did you colour me? 

Just to clarify, no one is pouring buckets of colour on you but is actually maligning you! 

Right, we now come to the word pera, which means any kind of torment or irritation. A wife repeatedly calling you when you are having a good time with buddies is a pera. So is the traffic when stagnant.

A sententious politician's platitudes are the father of all pera, or perar baap

In short, any situation which gives you angst is pera. The relentless pestering from relatives to get married or to conceive are certainly the biggest peras for most professional women.  

Lastly, there is a word, kahini, which in English means a story although, in modern Bangla, this is widely used to refer to elaborate theatrics or hysterics. 

Mostly used between young couples, kahini refers to smoke and mirrors. An example will demystify you: Let's assume you planned an evening out with your special friend and then s/he calls you up and gives you one hundred and one causes to postpone. In exasperation, you say: Get to the point, don't make a kahini out of it! 

Whoops, did I forget abar jigae? Well, this means, don't ask, what you are thinking is 100% accurate. For instance, will you go to the party? Abar jigae

Anyway, don't want to give you much pera and, so, I am off to the Boi Mela with an ostheer buddy who is certainly not a giringibaaj

You are most welcome to join, we will ensure you have a shei, if not a maatha noshto evening! 


Towheed Feroze is a former journalist.

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