How the world of Tintin may have shaped our language

Shashi Tharoor’s World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat and wordsmith par excellence will dissect words and language

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 17 Mar 2022, 3:28 PM

When my twin sons were little, and just beginning to discover the allure of strong language to let off steam, I managed to steer them away from the offensive terms they were hearing around them in the school playground by getting them to use more wholesome alternatives. My trick was simple: I had introduced them to my favourite series of comics by the Belgian cartoonist Hergé, The Adventures of Tintin, masterfully translated into English. Tintin is a boyish journalist in plus fours, with a quiff in his hair and a white-furred dog, Snowy, trotting everywhere by his side. His mate in most of his adventures is a bluff, hard-drinking, pipe-smoking and often coarsely cynical merchant mariner, Captain Archibald Haddock. And like most seafarers, the good Captain, a short-tempered and emotional character frequently banging into objects, stubbing his toe and suffering other misfortunes, was given to venting his fury, frustration and rage frequently, in a string of expletives. A lesser cartoonist might render Captain Haddock’s colourful curse-words with a series of asterisks and punctuation marks — like this: *!**?!! — but Hergé was far too clever and original for such an uninspiring device. Where others needed such a technique to mask words too impolite (or too impolitic) to print, Captain Haddock’s expletives were rendered by Hergé in full — but they involved neither profanity nor scatology, the usual resort of the angry, nor crude references to sexual activity. Instead, they stretched the vocabulary of Hergé’s devoted young readers.

It is said that the idea occurred to Hergé when, in1933, shortly after the Four-Power Pact had been signed by France, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, he had overheard a trader use the word “four-power pact” as a curse. Hergé, who obviously could not use any swear words since his audience mainly consisted of children, was impressed by this use of an “irrelevant insult”. He decided to try the same expedient for his colourful mariner. Why not, Hergé reasoned, have the cursing Captain Haddock resort to obscure or esoteric words that were not actually rude or crude, wouldn’t offend his readers (or their parents), but could constitute a running joke? Haddock would be shown apoplectic with fury and venting his range in expletives — but these would be innocent, irrelevant words projected as if they were very strong curses, whereas, in fact, they were perfectly harmless terms.

The device first appeared in the Tintin adventure comic The Crab with the Golden Claws, when Captain Haddock charges a party of Berber raiders in anger, yelling “jellyfish”, “troglodyte” and “ectoplasm”. Hergé’s idea of using “irrelevant insults” as if they constituted colourful expletives, proved an instant success and he continued the practice in subsequent books, making these inoffensive exoticisms a defining characteristic of Haddock’s outbursts. It is said that Hergé, much taken with his own idea, started collecting words for Haddock’s use, searching dictionaries to unearth ever-more useful ones.

Inspired by Hergé, I taught my little boys that these were the appropriate words to use when they were angry or annoyed with their friends, and that the words they were hearing hurled around the school playground were beneath them. Thus the United Nations International School in New York, in the early 1990s, was treated to the sight of two little Indian boys channelling their inner Captain Haddock in moments of anger and letting fly the most colourful expletives their friends had ever heard: “bashi-bazouk”, “visigoths”, “kleptomaniac”, “sea gherkin”, “blundering Bazookas”, “ten thousand thundering typhoons!” and “billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles”!

Hergé’s Haddock had expanded my own vocabulary: while some of his words were hardly exotic (“pockmark”, “Fuzzy Wuzzy”, “bragger”, “coconut”, “miserable slugs”, and “parasites” failed to pass muster), and some really were insults (“maniacs”, “nincompoops”, “nitwits”, “scoundrels”, “pinheads”, “bandits” and “ruffians” were actually rude and couldn’t be used), others stretched the limits of my, and my sons’, knowledge: “anacoluthon”, “cercopithecuses”, “ectomorph” and “pyrographer”, for instance. Some were just clever: “abominable snowman”, “miserable molecule of mildew”, “iconoclast”, “platypus”, “Popinjay” and “orang-outangs” were effective zingers. Using “logarithm” as an insult was devilish (in the pre-Google era, it didn’t occur to Hergé or me to pair it with “algorithm”!). Sometimes, though, Hergé and I had to part company: his Haddock used “Polynesians”, “Aztec” and “carpet sellers” as insults, which was simply racist, and even more bizarrely for me, thought “vegetarians” worked as a negative epithet!

My sons, both writers, have refined vocabularies these days. I now have a four-year-old grandson. I hope one day I’ll hear him uttering Haddockisms too!

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