Oli ko goli

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Anschel Schaffer-Cohen writes:

I was reading this Guardian article about the newly elected prime minister of Nepal, and I was a bit surprised by this sentence:

Oli, 63, is generally popular in Nepal and has a reputation for being outspoken. Some use the phrase "Oli ko goli" to describe him – "When Oli speaks, he fires [a bullet]".

Can so few syllables–three, not counting his name–actually contain that much information? What's the literal translation of this phrase, and if there's implied context where does it come from? Since I remember reading that you speak Nepali, I was hoping you could shed some light on this, either personally or on the blog.

You can find similar translations of "Oli ko goli" all over the web, but they're all wrong.

I want to compliment Anschel, first of all, for his sharp observation and smart questions, and second, for remembering that I speak Nepali.

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer (1965-67),  I always used to say that Nepal is "mērō dōsrō mātr̥bhūmi  मेरो दोस्रो मातृभूमि" ("my second mother land") and Nepali is  "mērō dōsrō mātr̥bhāṣā  मेरो दोस्रो मातृभाषा" ("my second mother tongue") — and I really meant it.

Although now, half a century later, my Nepali is very rusty, as soon as I read "Oli ko goli", short though it be, that phrase instantaneously called back to mind the countless village conversations I had with all sorts of people while I was living in Nepal.  I guess you could say that the rhythms and cadences of the language have been fused in my soul.

The new prime minister's full name is Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli खड्ग प्रसाद शर्मा ओली.  So "Oli" is his surname.  That leaves us with "ko" and "goli" to take care of.

The single syllable kō को is a genitive marker and gōlī गोली means "bullet".  So Ōlī kō gōlī ओली को गोली means "Oli's bullet".

Once again, I want to thank Anschel for transporting me back to the blessed mountains and the wonderful people of eastern Nepal.



25 Comments

  1. shubert said,

    October 13, 2015 @ 12:34 pm

    Prof Mair:
    May I ask: Why do their letters all connected by a line?

  2. Vasha said,

    October 13, 2015 @ 1:17 pm

    I actually understood that phrase from the very little Hindi that I know. It's almost maximally simple, so there's definitely some laziness in no journalist having realized that their "translation" (actually explanation) didn't add up.

    By the way, "goli" (hindi गोली) has the basic meaning of "ball", extended to bullets, pills, and other senses; it also got borrowed into English as "goolies" for testicles. An old fashioned but not obsolete expression in England. Usually found in the phrase "kicked in the goolies".

  3. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    October 13, 2015 @ 2:42 pm

    Follow-up: When they talk about "Oli's bullet", are Nepalis in fact referring to his speech, as the Guardian implies?

  4. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 13, 2015 @ 2:59 pm

    I'm very happy to learn where "goolies" comes from :)

  5. Francesco Brighenti said,

    October 13, 2015 @ 4:56 pm

    Oli ko goli = '(stuff – in this case implying speech) belonging to Oli (equals) a bullet'.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    October 13, 2015 @ 5:08 pm

    @Anschel Schaffer-Cohen:

    I have a hunch that the "bullet" may be serving as a kind of pun for bōlī बोली ("word").

    http://dsalsrv02.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/romadict.pl?page=572&table=schmidt&display=utf8

  7. Victor Mair said,

    October 13, 2015 @ 5:11 pm

    @shubert

    From a professor of Sanskrit:

    =====

    I can't say, for sure, but each letter (ka, kha, ke, khe, etc.) has a line over it. And so, some people put a line after each letter they write and then it connects up to look like a long line over a series of letters (which looks like clothes hanging from a clothesline, as Melquiades describes in Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude). Others write the letters and then draw a straight line over the whole series, giving the impression that the line is somehow drawn there by convention or for ornamental purposes. Some scripts, like the Gujarati script, which is basically devanagari, does not have the line on top at all!

    =====

    From the time I began the study of Nepali, Sanskrit, and Hindi, I have always felt that writers added those lines at the top of each letter to keep their words straight in rows.

  8. Nikhil said,

    October 13, 2015 @ 5:43 pm

    I don't know if this is true, but I Read somewhere that the line on top of Devanagari was a vestige from when the script was first written in stone. The instrument used by the scribes left a line on top when writing Bramhi, an ancestor of Devanagari; hence the line on top of most North Indian scripts. This could be folk wisdom though.

  9. Mike said,

    October 13, 2015 @ 6:58 pm

    I suppose the German "Schmidt Schnauze" is similarly concise when referring to Helmut Schmidt.

  10. Phil Ramsden said,

    October 13, 2015 @ 7:17 pm

    Might the sense of the pun, then, be "Oli's word is his bullet"? That might explain the translation, though it's still rather a free one. But I wonder whether "Oli ko boli" might be a known phrase.

  11. Gene Buckley said,

    October 13, 2015 @ 7:50 pm

    @shubert
    I can't find a good reference to this at the moment, but I think the accepted view is that the "headstroke" in Devanagari developed out of a serif in brush writing (which then would have been included in engraved versions of the script, as it became an integral part of the calligraphy).
    You can see an earlier version of the characters, with those serifs, on the Wikipedia page about the Gupta script from which Devanagari descends.

  12. Matt said,

    October 13, 2015 @ 8:22 pm

    Francesco: So you analyze the phrase as, roughly, "[Oli ko] = [goli]", i.e. two noun phrases equated by a zero copula?

    (Kind of strange that the translation quoted, "When Oli speaks, he fires [a bullet]," should add square brackets around a part of the sentence that actually does correspond directly to something explicitly in the original.)

  13. Matt said,

    October 13, 2015 @ 8:24 pm

    (Not at all difficult to believe, of course, given the generally woeful treatment of other languages by Anglophone newspapers… just strange.)

  14. shubert said,

    October 13, 2015 @ 9:59 pm

    Thank prof. Victor Mair, Sanskrit and Nikhil, Gene
    The latter one reminds me of edge (dent?) of postage stamps…

  15. shubert said,

    October 13, 2015 @ 10:06 pm

    Prof. V.M's remark about the top line makes sense. The English letters share that idea but in a subtle way

  16. JQ said,

    October 14, 2015 @ 4:31 am

    It's not a translation but an explanation. The Guardian author never indicated it was a direct translation.

  17. Dan S. said,

    October 14, 2015 @ 6:58 am

    @Matt, perhaps those square brackets that you complain of, around "bullet", represent not reinsertion of a missing element but rather substitution for a bowdlerized one. Might the primary meaning of "goli" on this context be that different implication of "ball[s]" that's more-often associated with an aggressive politician, as @Vashi suggests?

    In other words, perhaps a more-faithful translation would be, "Oli's balls [are speaking]."

  18. Uma shrestha said,

    October 14, 2015 @ 10:11 am

    This is simply a creative spin around the PM"s last name. It simply means he speaks his mind and does not hesitate doing so. I do not believe this has anything to with 'his balls.' This is clearly a reference to a 'bullet' and his words flow out of his mouth like bullets from a gun–a straight shooter, no nonsense.kind of person.

  19. Roger Lustig said,

    October 14, 2015 @ 12:33 pm

    Sounds like an abbreviation by those in the know.

    "Oli ko boli / Oli ko goli"–"Oli's word, Oli's bullet"–contains whatever might be missing from the short form. But if the phrase is universally known, why say the whole thing?

    A bit like the Late Latin "Jovi-bovi", short for "Quod licet Jovi non licet bovi," which in its short form served for centuries as a teacher-student putdown in German academies.

  20. Levantine said,

    October 14, 2015 @ 1:27 pm

    I have the same question as Matt regarding Francesco Brighenti's comment, which gives a very different meaning from "Oli's bullet". Can a native speaker give a definitive literal translation?

  21. Bathrobe said,

    October 14, 2015 @ 5:38 pm

    So an alternative meaning could be, "Oli's got balls"?

  22. Victor Mair said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 2:24 pm

    I asked Uma Shrestha:

    =====

    Are you a native Nepali?

    If so, was I right to say that "Oli ko goli" = Ōlī kō gōlī ओली को गोली = "Oli's bullet"?

    One of the commenters, Francesco Brighenti, said: "Oli ko goli = '(stuff – in this case implying speech) belonging to Oli (equals) a bullet'." Where did he get the idea that "goli" means "stuff"? Is that possible? goli = stuff ?????

    =====

    Uma replied:

    =====

    Yes, I speak Nepali natively. You can literally translate "Oli ko goli" as "Oli's bullet." The word "goli' has been used simply as a metaphor for Oli's way of talking. I do not really know how Brighenti got this idea since we never use this word for "stuff". We do use it for a pill (medicine) but perhaps he is confusing this with the word "gulla" which does mean "stuff."

    =====

  23. Levantine said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 2:51 pm

    Professor Mair, thanks for clarifying. I understood Francesco Brighenti to be saying that the genitive marker "ko" itself implied stuff (in the same way that "mine" in British English can mean "my house"), but it seems his parsing is untenable.

  24. Levantine said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 2:54 pm

    Matt's representation of Francesco Brighenti's parsing is perhaps clearer than my description:

    "[Oli ko] = [goli]", with the phrase "Oli ko" itself connoting "Oli's stuff" and a zero copula linking it to "goli".

  25. Victor Mair said,

    October 16, 2015 @ 10:21 am

    From Leopold Eisenlohr:

    Translating this literally into Bengali would be অলির গুলি olir guli. The -ko / -ka / -ki construction in Nepali and similar in Hindi is not used in Bengali – instead you just add -r onto a word ending in a vowel and -er onto a word ending in a consonant. I looked around to see if this idea of speech=bullet is paralleled in Bengali, but it doesn't seem to be.

    I also Googled for other instances in Nepali of the -kō gōlī phrase. It seems that Ōlī kō gōlī is used to describe his speech rather than himself. Most articles I saw in English quote the same definition as used in the Guardian (when he speaks, he fires a bullet). But this Indian Express article uses it for his speech ("His penchant for inflammatory rhetoric — "Oli ko goli", his speeches are called — has alarmed some"), which makes more sense as a straightforward metaphor.

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