Aiyo! The English language just usurped my all-purpose south Indian word and sucked the life out of it

Oh dear!
Oh dear!
Image: Reuters/Sivaram V
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The closest equivalent to “aiyo” in the English language is, perhaps, the F-bomb.

But even that doesn’t quite capture aiyo’s breathtaking range. Besides, they are miles of each other in meaning.

The Oxford Dictionary last week named aiyo—variously pronounced as ayyo, ayyoh, aaeeyooh, or even yo—as a legitimate phrase in the English language. The dictionary is pithy in its description: “In southern India and Sri Lanka, expressing distress, regret, or grief; ‘Oh no!’, ‘Oh dear!’.”

For a start, they may be on track: If ever there was a word that we South Indians utter in sadness, it is aiyo.

It is, nonetheless, a gross understatement because it just sweeps aside an entire array of expressions the phrase affords us.

Aiyo, after all, can imply anything. Pathos over a loved one’s illness or death, a child’s joy at being handed a bar of chocolate, mortal fear (“Aiyo! Godzilla”), restless impatience before pregnancy tests, the awe that winning a million-dollar lottery evokes, disgust at finding a fly in that glass of whisky. It simply could be anything.

Mohanlal, the Malayalam movie actor, is said to have even used aiyo for an as yet undefined emotion in one of his classic scenes.

Now the dictionary has reduced aiyo to cud, emasculating all its colourful possibilities. What will the Mysuru schoolboy say the next time he fails the class test? What will the Guntur movie buff say when his favourite star punches the villain on screen? “Oh dear?!”     

After all, aiyo is the most frequently used term common to all major Dravidian languages of southern India—Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, and Telugu.

And while there are many things that distinguish South India from the North—socio-politics, economic development, music, foodaiyo is one marker you can’t miss, especially according to Bollywood’s half-witted dialogue-writers who also compulsively suffix “Rama” to it.

Some say that in Hindu mythology, Aiyo is the name of the wife of Yama, the god of death. Hence, in many traditional South Indian households, it is still considered inauspicious to use the term injudiciously, especially at twilight. Others connect it to the Hindu god, Ayyapa.

None of this has stopped the word from taking on a life of its own in the South Indian universe. Now let’s hear them say “Aiyo, your majesty.”