No MOE advice

Fadzilah Amin says farewell to Mind Our English after helping readers with their questions for 12 years.

After 12 years of amassing, assembling and accumulating the right and wrong ways to use English, Mind Our English is bidding adieu to readers today.

Here are some of the funniest and strangest moments from long-term MOE agony aunt Fadzilah Amin as she helped readers with their linguistic trials and tribulations.

We are also republishing two articles to re-examine a perennial issue — whether Manglish is a legitimate expression of our unique national identity, or something that we should stamp out.

Feedback is welcome at

It is hard to say goodbye, after 12 years, to readers who read my language column and used to ask me questions about the English language.

Until March 2012, I used to call myself “a language agony aunt” when asked what I did in my retirement. Although it was not all that I did, it was among the things I enjoyed doing.

My workplace from 1970 to 1996 was an ivory tower, since I taught English Literature in Universiti Malaya to students whose English was far better than that of the general population. I’d heard about the falling standard of English in Malaysia, but it seemed like a distant rumour.

Teaching English language at two other places after retirement gave me glimpses of the levels of English in the rest of the country. There were students whose English was good, but there were others who needed a lot of help. I was also teaching only Bumiputra students, while my former students at UM were a multiracial group of Malaysians.

When Kee Thuan Chye, then Associate Editor of The Star, asked me in May 2001 whether I would be interested to answer readers’ questions on English grammar, usage, etc., I readily embraced the opportunity of interacting with a wider group of Malaysians than I was accustomed to.

Indeed, I found the work, which I did from home, very interesting for the most part, although there were also some “headaches” along the way. Let me try to recall a few of the wide variety of questions readers asked.

A few months into my involvement with MOE, a reader asked what many others perhaps wanted to know, but found it too embarrassing to ask. He asked what the English words were for the following (I’ll write the answers in brackets after each):

a) the solid discharge from nose (bogey);

b) the watery discharge of nose due to influenza (snot);

c) the yellowish discharge of ears (earwax);

d) the discharge of eyes when we wake up in the morning (sleep).

I laughed my head off when I saw the questions, but I respect the reader who asked them for daring to do so. I didn’t know the answer to d) then and said so, but later another reader supplied the answer. I had thought that when a writer wrote “He woke up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes ...” that he was using “sleep” metaphorically!

Another memorable question that year had to do with the meaning of the word “remisier”. I was so sure the word would be in all the dictionaries, since I’d heard of people working as remisiers in this country. But no English dictionary (that I had access to) contained this word! The answer came from a reader who knew: “Remisier is a French word for an agent dealing in the buying and selling of stocks and shares. In Malaysia, remisiers are the dealers’ representatives who work as agents to the stockbrokers, earning commission.”

A question that sparked a lot of interest was about the English equivalent of the Malay “sesikat/sesisir pisang”. Some Malaysians have been using the translation of the Malay term and call a small bunch of bananas “a comb of bananas”. Again, this meaning of “comb” was not found in any English dictionary I had access to, but two native speaker friends of mine remembered the time when a small bunch of bananas was called “a hand of bananas”.

This was corroborated by the Oxford English Dictionary, one of whose definitions of “hand” is: “One of the clusters, each containing from 8 to 20 fruits, into which a bunch of bananas or plantains naturally divides.” It is also the term used by English-speaking banana growers in the West Indies. However, the word “bunch” seems to be used nowadays in other English-speaking countries for both “sikat/sisir” and “tandan”.

Among my readers were students of different ages, as well as the parents of the younger ones, whose questions were mainly related to the students’ schoolwork, especially when they’d had differences of opinion with their teachers. This told me how limited and dogmatic some English teachers in this country were. However, there were also instances when the teachers were right and the students wrong!

The student whom I remember most clearly was an older student, a Malaysian undergraduate at a Japanese university. He asked me questions all the way from Japan, always thanked me courteously for my answers, and even let me know when he had come back to Malaysia. An e-mail from him often made my day!

There were also readers, and I assume they are young, who asked me to interpret the lyrics of some songs (usually American country songs) and I did it happily, thinking this was a fun way to improve one’s English.

One reader I have reason to remember said he was a nasi lemak seller who had been studying English on his own for a long time. His English, however, sounded too good for me to believe him, but I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

In one letter he asked me to explain the meanings of “would” in 21 different sentences and in a later one there were 17 more sentences with “would” to be explained. It took me a whole working day to answer his first batch of questions. Whew! After that Kee told me I need not answer the others.

I also received somewhat personal comments made by readers about me or to me. In 2001 a reader expressed surprise that I had read the novel, Catch 22 after I answered someone’s question about the term “catch 22”. In 2008, I smiled when another reader began a sentence to me with: “As a woman and potential mother yourself ...” My children were grown up by then! I wondered whether I sounded young to him or just immature.

I am grateful, however, to the reader who in 2006 suggested to me that I should teach my readers how to fish instead of just providing them with fish to eat. His suggestion meant that I should recommend books and Internet sites where readers could look things up for themselves, instead of just answering their questions. I had actually been doing that a bit, but could do more when a lot of dictionaries became available online in the last few years. Some of them even make the pronunciations of words available at a click of one’s computer mouse.

Medals for the most interesting questions and comments must go to readers I.Ho and sm, who themselves don’t need help with their English, but alerted me to certain usages that I had not been aware of. And many thanks to Dutch native speaker Henk Metselaar of Universiti Malaya who in October 2008 provided the correct pronunciation of the word “Stadhuys”.

Finally, I must thank The Star and the editors of MOE that I have worked with – Kee Thuan Chye, Simrit Kaur, Jane Ragavan and Andrew Sia – for having given me the opportunity of interacting with a wide cross-section of Malaysians for so long.

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