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slumdog

noun [countable] informal

a very poor and underprivileged person, especially a child, who lives in a slum (a poor and crowded area of a city where people live in very bad conditions)

'Global meltdown hits Dharavis slumdogs … The teeming slums of Dharavi, Asia's largest, have spawned a thousand dreams – stories abound of slumdogs who have become millionaires through hard labour and enterprise.'

NDTV 5th March 2009

Within days of its release in January 2009, Slumdog Millionaire, a rags-to-riches tale set in the slums of Mumbai, India, became one of the most successful British films of late, currently having grossed over 200 million dollars worldwide and recently scooping up a host of prestigious awards, including Golden Globes, Oscars and BAFTAs.

As a result of its global success and significant media exposure, the film has brought the word slumdog to the lips of people from richer, western nations – many of whom, like myself, have no real idea about what it means to be a slumdog.

contrary to expectation, slumdog doesn't seem to be particularly offensive

The informal term slumdog refers to a slum dweller, a person, especially a young person or child, who lives in an area of a town or city where there is extreme poverty and living conditions are particularly bad, with poor sanitation and makeshift housing. Though slums exist in many parts of the world, evidence of use seems to suggest that slumdog is so far confined to India, referring to the inhabitants of slums in the country's big cities. Official surveys reveal that 65 million Indians – around a quarter of the urban population – live in slums.

Contrary to expectation, slumdog doesn't seem to be particularly offensive – it carries negative connotations of course, but seems to be being used as an informal term of reference rather than an insult.

The title of the film is an ironic juxtaposition of two extremes, the poor on the one hand ('the slumdog') and the rich on the other ('the millionaire'). It has therefore caused an unlikely collocational patterning for slumdog. A similar bizarre contrast became a reality for two of the film's young stars, Azharuddin Ismail and Rubina Ali (aged 10 and 9 respectively) who had to cope with an incredible transition from the Mumbai slums to Hollywood glitz – and back again. Though Slumdog Millionaire has been incredibly successful, this issue – the treatment of the two young child actors and the consequent psychological impact on them – has sparked controversy and criticism of the film's director Danny Boyle. From an Indian perspective, there are also some who feel that the film has been detrimental to the country's reputation, with an overemphasis on violence, criminality and extreme poverty.

On the flip side, there are many for whom the film has done a brilliant job in raising awareness. On the back of the film, a new fundraising website has been launched, www.slumdogs.org, which highlights the plight of India's street children and promotes donations to related charities. Slumdog's success has also been wholeheartedly embraced in the Indian political scene. Inspired by its 'uplifting' lyrics, the governing Congress party have recently acquired the rights to Jai Ho (meaning 'victory'), the Oscar-winning song from the movie.

Background – slumdog

Slumdog appears to be a new coinage, with no obvious evidence of independent use prior to the movie. Its wide-scale exposure as a result of the film's success may mean that it stays the course.

The origins of the word slum are uncertain, though it dates back to the early 19th century when it was used as slang for 'back room'.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 11th March 2009.

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