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Mar 7, 2005
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Fleet Street
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with Anu Garg

I'm back in the Seattle area after my trip to South America. I enjoyed the trip and got to practice my Spanish in Buenos Aires. Though there were a few places where I'd hoped for a good bilingual offering.

Banks, for instance. Surely, the bank ATMs offered the choice of castellano or inglés (Spanish or English). That was one place I didn't want to trust my Spanish, so I promptly chose inglés. All went well; the ATM conversed in my preferred tongue... until it was time for an error message. It spewed it out in Spanish and never reverted to English.

That reminds me of one of the numerous Akbar-Birbal stories -- tales from the court of King Akbar and his wisest courtier Birbal -- I grew up listening in India. Once, long ago, a linguist visited the court of Akbar. The visitor spoke fluently in dozens of languages. The King was curious to know the guest's mother tongue. Akbar had his many courtiers interview the linguist but they reported that he had a flawless command of all of his languages.

The King then sought help from Birbal, his most trusted courtier. Birbal walked over and promptly kicked the linguist in the backside, making him stumble. The linguist gave vent to a few choice invectives. Birbal then announced the native language of the visitor. He explained that we may speak in any language, but when it's time to select the best insults, we revert to our native tongue.

Well, that's what the ATM did too. It was late at night; there was a man pounding at the bank door (he should have swiped his ATM card at the glass door to open it). The first translation of the ATM error message that came to my mind was "All of your money has been transferred to the account of the person who developed the ATM software. Press OK to continue."

Trying to keep my sanity, I latched on to the keyword "menor" in the error message and figured the ATM wanted me to enter a smaller amount than the one I had entered $200. I punched in "$100" and got the same message back. That routine went on and on until I went down to $10. Then the error message changed, asking to enter an amount in multiples of $50. I think the ATM was too proud to admit that it was out of currency notes.

Apart from Argentina's economic problems, I was impressed by its people's courtesy and generosity. One evening I hopped into a taxi and told the driver the address: "Paraguay cuatro cinco cero" (450 Paraguay Avenue). After a while, he stopped the taxi near 4050 Paraguay. That's when I showed him a card with the address printed on it. He tapped his forehead and continued driving to the right address. The first thought that came to mind was the classic "taken for a ride" but I gave him the benefit of the doubt and quietly chalked it up to my broken Spanish. When we reached the destination and I paid him, he returned more than he should have, according to the fare shown in the meter. When I pointed that out to him, he waved it away. He refused to charge for the distance he drove to the wrong address.

Once, before heading back to the hotel, I stopped by a nearby grocery store to pick up some fruit. When it came time to pay, I found I didn't have enough pesos. I offered the woman at the counter a Visa card but she didn't accept credit cards. She didn't take dollars either. Well, I started to remove some of the fruit from the bag but she stopped me with "Está bien" (That's OK), "No importa" (It doesn't matter). I later managed to extract some local currency from an ATM and paid her the balance.

While I get over the jet-lag, I'll let you travel the world: this week we'll see a few toponyms - words derived from place names. You'll visit Cambodia, Africa, Finland, and the UK.

gamboge (gam-BOJ, -BOOZH) noun

Pronunciation RealAudio

1. A reddish yellow color.

2. A gum resin obtained from the sap of trees of the genus Garcinia, used as a yellow pigment and as a cathartic.

[From New Latin gambogium, variant of cambugium, after Cambodia where, among other places in southeast Asia, this tree is found.]

"In his (Li Nong's) works, the marshy environment is shown as something mysterious, pleasant and beautiful even, and his play of tones probably spanning the repertoire of gamboge, and cadmium, with streaks of impastoes, add to the tactile quality."
Ooi Kok Chuen; For the Zhangs, East Meets West; New Straits Times (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia); Mar 9, 2001.

"What do you make of synaesthesia? Since a lot of your work is sensual, is finding a way of making visual emotions or reactions to particular natural or made stimuli, do you think thus, that happiness is gamboge, ennui is grey and so on?"
Jonathan Meades; True colours; The Times (London, UK); Mar 31, 2001.

See more usage examples of gamboge in Vocabulary.com's dictionary.


In order to improve the mind, we ought less to learn than to contemplate. -Rene Descartes, philosopher and mathematician (1596-1650)

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