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A commentary on politics via vocabulary

A Sreenivasa Reddy/Dubai
Filed on October 24, 2020

The book is not a thesaurus, but a political tract. It is a new literary genre where innocuous pursuit of words has an inbuilt aim to take potshots at the dark side of our politics.

Shashi Tharoor, the veteran Indian politician, needs no introduction. Apart from being an articulate politician and orator, he is a man of letters with 20 books behind him. The former UN bureaucrat, who has a huge Twitter following, is famed for his innovative use of unheard-of-words to describe a contemporary situation.


Tharoorosaurus, his latest book, is a word formed of his name, tyrannosaurus (since people are apparently terrified of difficult words) and thesaurus. This type of word-formation is called portmanteau which Tharoor, for some strange reason, has chosen not to deal with in his compendium of 53 words representing 52 weeks in a year and one bonus for a leap year.


The words ranging from agathokakological to zugzwang cover a wide spectrum, quite a few of them having acute contemporary political relevance. Very commonplace words such as curfew, impeach, jaywalking, goon etc too find a place in this compendium. Tharoor says it is necessary because they have interesting history behind them. Here I discuss a few of them which caught my fancy.


Aptagram is a method of rearranging the letters of a word to form a new one that has same or related meaning. For example, notes and tones are aptagrams. Taking a humorous dig at editors, Tharoor showed how the word ‘editor’ can be transformed into ‘redo it’. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi becomes a rare diamond in this process, giving his fans something to celebrate. There are many other words that can be formed with the letters of the Indian PM’s name that are not so charitable to him.


Tharoor rightfully rues death of apostrophe society in Britain since people have no patience for this simple punctuation mark.


The word I know is clique. But there is another word called claque which means a group of people who are hired to uplaud a speech or performance at a public place. Today most of the politicians hire a clique of claquers to amplify their message. On social media, it is a multi-million dollar business where paid staff like, share and comment on a leader or party’s message so that it creates some buzz on the internet waves. Tharoor was mysteriously silent on social media aspect of claquers.


I know of epistemology, the science of knowledge but not epistemophilia — excessive love of knowledge. Tharoor rightly decries mindless mugging of trivia with an aim to ace quizzes and competitive exams. This is by means real knowledge.


The words that he made famous — farrago, floccinaucinihilipilification, defenestrate — find space and some personal explanation how they came to be used. Tharoor wants us to get rid of epicaricacy — the perverse pleasure in misfortunes of others. He has a few digs at an infamously loud news anchor who was out baying for his blood with his farrago of lies. The longest ‘f’ word raised a few eyebrows when he first used it to describe his book on the prime minister.


There is a word for that one failing I am most susceptible to. It is not getting the right word when you need it. You know it but you do not get it. It is called lethologica.


Lunacy has its connection to moon. Appearance and disappearance of the shiny globe is said to trigger madness in some people just as it causes tides in sea. That is why they are called lunatics. Tharoor surprisingly claims the word has become extinct which is not true. Lynch, a form of lunacy, is discussed in contemporary Indian context where mobs targeted Muslims and Dalits.


A honest politician is truly an oxymoron, though Tharoor is an exception.


Panglossian offers Tharoor an opportunity to take a few digs at Modi’s spin doctors who are experts at putting a positive gloss on everything that the government does.


Muliebrity, another word for effeminate, gets some elaborate mention. Tharoor wants more muliebral force in Indian Parliament and hence makes a case for women quota bill. More women in parliament would only make Tharoor happy provided he does not lose his seat to them.


Entry on unique Indianism — prepone — is the most interesting of all. Tharoor thought he is the originator of the word but finds that it had been used as early as 1913 in the US. He defends various Indianisms such as ‘do the needful,’ ‘non-vegetarian,’ ‘airdash’ saying they are born out of real necessity. All words are valid if they stand the test of time and usage. "Indian English is a living, practical language used by millions everyday for practical purposes," says Tharoor. But strangely he does not approve of expressions such as ‘return back’ where he says back is redundant. Using back for rear is a bad idea. ‘Entry through the back side only,’ the cause of much hilarity, is simply bad English and ought to be avoided.


Snollygoster is a word that Tharoor has attempted to popularise when Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar shifted his loyalties to the BJP. He takes us through its hoary history before settling down on its meaning — a shrewd and unprincipled politician. He believes Indian politicians are mostly snollygosters.


For long I thought spoonerism was chamchagiri (sycophancy). But it has a meaning that originated in Oxford and has something to do with funny mix-up of syllables.


Selection of words such as lynching, vigilantes, trolls, zealots, xenophobia appear to be part of a political project. These words offer an opportunity to tell the dark side of the present dispensation. The book is not a thesaurus, but a political tract. It is a new literary genre where innocuous pursuit of words has an inbuilt aim to take potshots at the seamy side of our politics. Tharoor takes a clear stance in his discussion of the word xenophobia. He says succinctly, "When a government itself is complicit in whipping up xenophobia, a society is forced to call on its own highest values to resist succumbing to it."


All the words are explained in terms of contemporary politics. It is a commentary on politics via vocabulary. It is a nice literary strategy to capture the mood of an era by tackling the key words in vogue. Tharoor should repeat this philological exercise every year. He will have left behind a rich legacy that equals his other literary achievements. — sreenivasa@khaleejtimes.com





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