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Minding One's Language, the Tharoor Way

I was planning to write an article sometime next month on Tharoorisms that find expression in the social media off and on, but preponed it, mind the word ‘preponed,’ because a couple of days ago I found that Dr Shashi Tharoor had staked a linguistic claim on that word : owning credit for its coinage and propagation as an Indian English usage.

When an elderly friend, a former bureaucrat, forwarded to me a whatsapp post purported to be by Dr Tharoor on this, I promptly sent a reply that it appeared to me to be just a ‘Tall Claim.’

‘I have long immodestly considered myself the inventor of the term ‘prepone,’ Dr Tharoor said in the whatsapp post. ‘I first came up with it at St Stephen’s in 1972, used it extensively in conversation and employed it in an article in the JS magazine soon after,’ goes the ’immodest’ claim.

Immodest? Perhaps yes, as the word prepone was mentioned by Oxford English Dictionary as having been first used in the 16th century, long, long before the use of the English language spread in India. According to OED it was one Robert Crowley, a Puritan, who first used the word in writing in 1549. There was, however, no further evidence of its usage in subsequent centuries till a reader used that word in a letter sent to The New York Times in 1913. That too was much before Dr Tharoor’s sojourn at St Stephen's and his own first use of the word.

To Dr Tharoor’s credit it should be said that he had asked if anyone was aware of a usage of the word earlier than his own. The etymology of the word traced by OED and a similar entry in Merriam-Webster give the proper answer.

One of the most eloquent and pleasant speakers and debaters in India, on any subject under the sun, Dr Tharoor is often celebrated in the social media for the wrong reasons, that is for the unfamiliar words he touts in his tweets and other fora on the net. Many express awe at his choice of vocabulary. There are several sites on the net which list out the unfamiliar, sometimes outlandish, words used by him, giving them impressive titles like ‘Learn Ten Words from Dr Shashi Tharoor.’ The words listed range from prurient to ensurient to snollygoster to farrago to rodomontade to floccinaucinihilipilification, to name just a few. In fact the lists, given by many sites, go on and on and one may perhaps gasp reading them till the end.

‘Do you think your English vocabulary is strong? No matter how strong is your vocabulary, there is one man whose English is better than everyone else’s. He is Mr Shashi Tharoor. The MP from Thiruvananthapuram has always made us feel bad for not paying attention in our English classes,’ says one site arranging sort of a virtual tutorial on Dr Tharoor’s vocabulary class.

Dr Tharoor himself explains why he chooses such words. ‘The purpose of speaking or writing is to communicate with precision. I choose my words because they are the best ones for the idea I want to convey, not the most obscure or rodomontade ones!'

He may well be right about precision, but the problem with those words, like rodomontade in the above tweet, is that no instant communication is possible with an average reader who may not have a ready access to a dictionary nearby. And even if a dictionary is at hand, not many may refer to it while reading a tweet or scanning Facebook.

That means the purpose of Dr Tharoor in carefully choosing his vocabulary is lost on the reader. All that he may get from an awe-struck reader is an exclamation Oh! or Ah!

Many writers are fascinated by words. One celebrated example of such fascination is a quote from Malcolm Muggeridge, journalist and author: ‘From the very beginning of my life I never doubted that words were my métier. There was nothing else I ever wanted to do but to use them; no other accomplishment or achievement I ever had the slightest regard for, or desire to emulate. I have always loved words, and still love them, for their own sake. For the power and beauty of them; for the wonderful things that can be done with them.’

There obviously is a sea of difference between the way Muggeridge looks at words and how Dr Tharoor does. Whatever be his explanation, Dr Tharoor’s attempt may appear to many as an exercise more to impress than to convey.

Dr Tharoor’s choice of vocabulary takes me back to my college days in the early 1960s when as first year students of English Literature we too were groomed to love words ‘for the beauty of them and for the wonderful things that can be done with them.’

Many of the students, however, had the habit of searching out words that were high-sounding or passages that were bombastic. Dr Johnson and his dictionary were popular for the highly verbose and sarcastic definitions given for many words. Equally popular were such grandiloquent statements as the one attributed to him when he wanted to take a little snuff from the snuff-box of a friend: May I introduce my digiterial extremities (fingers) into your odoriferous concavity (snuff box) to extract some pulverized atom (snuff) which ascending to my nasal promontory causes a great titillation to all my olfactory nerves.

We were all happy with our searches, including of the longest words in the language like Floccinaucinihilipilification, Honorificabilitudinitatibus and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. But this was indeed a passing phase as we all overcame it by the time we reached the second year.

The first of these words cited above was used by Dr Tharoor in a tweet to serve his point about his book on PM Modi (word meaning: estimating something as worthless), the second appeared in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost (word meaning: the state of being able to achieve honours), while the last one was made immensely popular by a song in the 1964 film Mary Poppins (word meaning: extraordinarily good, wonderful).

It is difficult to say if Dr Tharoor will see the futility of using such grandiose terms in his writings and come up with simpler, more reader-friendly words. As an average reader I say that if he does, it will indeed be splendid, or, in other words, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.


More by :  P. Ravindran Nayar

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