Another quick note while I spend my days doing uninteresting things.
The front page of Hindustan Times today described another in the series of slipper-hurling incidents that have become quite fashionable in the last few years. This time, the hurl-ee, so to speak, was Arvind Kejriwal. The report reads—
“The black flag-waving, saffron kurta-clad attacker, XYZ of Jalaun district, Bundelkhand, about 200 km north of Lucknow, attacked Kejriwal when he was about to reach the dais at Jhulelal park near Lucknow University to address a meeting on graft.”
Two posts ago, I discussed the conflict caused due to two similar adjectives competing for the same syntactic/semantic role. As I read the above line, my brain stopped at flag-waving. The reason was that I didn’t parse black as a qualifier for flag, but rather thought it was qualifying whatever noun was going to follow. This was weird, of course, because 1) With the sensitivity of the whole racism issue, even if the intent was to convey a simple fact, it was unlikely someone would use _black_ here, and 2) In India, we anyhow don’t use _black_ to describe people who aren’t fair—we usually use ‘dark’ or ‘wheatish’ or some other adjective depending on which part of the skin colour spectrum the person lies in.
I did a double-take and re-read that part, and this blog post appeared, completely well-formed, in my head. It was clear to me that it was the flag that was black, not the man. And a black flag associated with a protesting man was natural, so it made sense. I still find this weird, because the hyphen in flag-waving strongly predisposes me to take it as one unit and not assign black to it. I would write it as black-flag-waving, but I am not aware of what register this conveys (I have usually seen constructions-like-these in humor/satire or blogs, but it’s an unverified gut-feeling, and I won’t bet on it), or what HT’s style norms are.
You could argue that the writer would have used a comma after _black_ if he intended to use it as a descriptor of the hurl-er. That’s right in the sense that black, flag-waving leaves no doubt about what/who is black, but it’s wrong in the sense that the lack of a comma doesn’t guarantee that one would necessarily parse it correctly without reading the rest of the sentence, whose structure quickly helps you put all the pieces in place.
The second descriptor was saffron kurta-clad, which wasn’t problematic now, because 1) I had already been primed to parse it correctly due to all that went through my head after reading black flag-waving and 2) saffron as a qualifier for a person is not idiomatic anyhow, so I would be forced to assign it to kurta, where it is rather apposite.