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I grew up in Sri Lanka and now Canada is my home.

The other day I was thinking about a word I used a lot in Sri Lanka, and how when I find myself in a similar situation now in Canada, I use an entirely different word.

I'll tell you about the situation, but before I do, I'll add a caveat to this story and really to this entire post.

The words that I'll be referring to in this post are somewhat gendered and this post will lean into that so as to not lose its meaning. Hopefully you'll see that the underlying idea I'm trying to touch on here is beyond a gendered term.

I grew up playing cricket. Lots of it.

On the street, at school, in parks, for birthday parties, on school trips, inside friends' houses, outside restaurants. Everywhere.

Whenever I would play somewhere in public, let's say at a park, I'd start a game with a few young folks who happened to be around, or join in on a game that was already underway.

Then would come the moment where I would use the word.

Let's say I was playing and then noticed there was a young boy, possibly a bit shy, standing off to the side, looking like he wanted to play but was too shy to ask.

I say young boy and what I really mean is someone who I would deem to be younger than I was at the time. That part is a judgement call. There is a different word I would use if I judged the boy to be older, though typically in that culture it's the older boy who would initiate first.

The unspoken rule in the culture is that no one is excluded. Especially from a cricket game.

When I noticed that young, often shy boy standing off to the side, I would walk over to him and ask if he wanted to join the game.

Now before I tell you exactly what words I would use to ask that particular question, I want you to imagine what words you would use to ask that question.

Imagine your own equivalent of a cricket game, and imagine you see a young, shy person off to the side, how would you invite them in? What words would you use specifically?

I used to speak Sinhalese, which is one of the local languages of Sri Lanka and I would often ask the entire question in Sinhalese. I can't remember the entire question, but I do remember one particular word.


Before I tell you what malli means, I want to tell you how I would ask that same question now, in Canada, where I speak English.

"Hey buddy, wanna play?"


Growing up, I used to say malli and now in its place, I say buddy.

The interesting thing is, buddy and malli have two very different meanings.

If you're reading this, you can very likely already define buddy. If I asked you to come up with some synonyms for buddy, you might say pal or friend. When you say pal or friend or buddy to a stranger, it implies a certain kind of relationship with that stranger. Not an intimate one per se, but it's a friendship of one kind or another.

The word malli on the other hand, translates to little brother.

That implies a very different kind of relationship, doesn't it?

It's familial.

The interesting thing is, when I think back to my childhood, this idea of using familial language to address strangers was the default way of speaking.

  • Nangi meaning little sister

  • Akki meaning older sister

  • Aiya meaning older brother

  • Any strange older woman—including my friends' mothers—would be Aunty

  • Any strange older man—including my friends' dads—would be Uncle

All strangers, were family.

I wonder how different our relationships with strangers would be, if this was our default view.

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