A-Z of Sri Lankan English, Colombo, Language

A-Z of Sri Lankan English: J is for jobless

In the UK and the US, being jobless is simply another word for being unemployed, not having a job – especially in newspaper headlines. Here in Sri Lanka it has an additional meaning, especially in colloquial contexts, where it can also refer to being free, idle, having nothing to do, and by extension being a waster, a loafer, a useless person.

Shyam Selvadurai uses the word in this sense in Funny Boy: “that servant boy was a real jobless character.” (page 134)

Shehani Gomes turns it into a term of abuse in Learning to Fly: “I wouldn’t know you jobless freak!” (page 101). Elsewhere she describes an imaginary courtroom, “the few benches at the back full of unknown jobless gossips.” (page 122)

Vihanga Perera takes characteristic liberties with the word in Stable Horses, talking about forwarded emails “from the joblesser quarter of acquaintances”. (page 87)

The word loafer is also used rather differently in Sri Lankan English. It refers to a person who either hangs around doing nothing (which is the meaning of the standard English term loafing around), or gallivants around having a good time but achieving very little. In both senses it suggests wasting time, not doing what you should be doing, or perhaps something more sinister.

The word is used by Carl Muller: “I have told you girls a thousand times don’t encourage every loafer on the road.” (The Jam Fruit Tree, page 12), and by Michelle de Kretser, who writes of “a loafer with a shifty, rolling gaze” (The Hamilton Case, page 258). It is also used by Nihal de Silva: “Getting off was another battle, pushing past women with shopping baskets, men with briefcases and loafers who wanted to rub themselves against Kamala.” (The Road from Elephant Pass, page 320). He also mentions “a bearded loafer” (The Far Spent Day, page 70).

Two other expressions with a similar meaning are rasthiyadu case and har’ par’ six fellow, as in this quote from The Mirror of Paradise by Asgar Hussein:

His thoughts drifted to the past, and the words “You’re just a har’ par’ six fellow” resounded in his head. A har’ par’ six fellow. That was what she had called him before destroying his relationship with her sister Daphne. The phrase “har’ par’ six fellow” was an insult used by her family to describe a worthless person. It was always uttered in a tone heavy with contempt. It came from the image of a clock at half past six, when both hands point down to give a limp appearance. (The Mirror of Paradise, page 22)

Being jobless is not the only thing for which SLE has such a rich variety of expressions. There are also numerous colourful colloquial words for eating (whack, wallop, hammer, bat, …), scolding (blackguard, give somebody beans, give somebody a shelling, …), and hitting (hammer, give somebody a pasting, give somebody a shot, I’ll give you one!, …).


A-Z Sri Lankan English

A-Z of Sri Lankan English is“an all-new, occasional alphabetical dip“into the variety of English spoken in Sri Lanka, published exclusively on“Groundviews. The original A-Z of Sri Lankan English was published in the travelsrilanka magazine, and can be found here.