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Tharoor’s Far-Out Excursions Into English Vocabulary

Shashi Tharoor has done it again. A tad considerate or arguably apologetic, the Indian National Congress’s dandy has quoted a dictionary entry on this occasion.

There’s been a kerfuffle of sorts, since May 2017, over Tharoor’s seemingly exotic vocabulary. Well, just to set things straight, neither ‘rodomontade’ nor his earlier ‘farrago’ is as alien as it’s made out to be. Both words are familiar — if a trifle tiresomely so sometimes through repetition — to that somewhat exclusive club, the London ‘Times’ Crossword solvers, of which this writer was once an inordinately proud member (a membership which sadly lapsed only when the Calcutta Statesman could no longer be obtained in Bangalore). So when Tharoor unfurled those two flaming banners one didn’t quite join the rumpus: one merely laughed a superior laugh, although not untinged with regret, for the colours were a bit soiled and dusty through disuse. It had been a long while since they had seen sunlight. [More about the subject]

But however rebarbative — another one owed to that superlative Crossword — the man’s personal aspects, he can hardly be faulted for scraping the lexicographic attic. One is grateful that someone is doing it, and in this country too where English — at least the recognisable kind — is as rare as an okapi or an ocelot (both favourites of Printing House Square again).

However, his former diplomatic status, taken in conjunction with his apparent zeal for the lexically near-extinct has — apart from amusement — kindled a mildly wicked memory in this writer. In Lawrence Durrell’s Antrobus chronicles is a tale of an infuriatingly supercilious cat (“Smoke, the Embassy Cat” — quite possibly a cousin to Saki’s “Tobermory”). A diplomatic minute from the Ambassador to an underling goes as follows:

“About your prose style — Smoke [the cat] says it is poor stuff. Try to avoid words like ‘otiose’ and ‘serendipity’ and you may improve…”

If Smoke sniffed at something as innocuous as ‘otiose’ (another Times Crossword chestnut) one shudders to think what ‘he, she or it’ (in Antrobus’s words) would have made of Tharoor’s decidedly far-out excursions. Evidently, in all his diplomatic career at the UN, he didn’t find time to read Antrobus. Had he done so, the shade of Smoke the Embassy Cat would have found a permanently frowning editorial perch on his pompous shoulder.

But let the Tharoors be. They have their uses, like now. Since we began with the London ‘Times’ Crossword, we sign off with a clue (a personal favourite, and an easy one):

“Book for a long flight (6-4, 5)”


By KVK Murthy

Retired banker with varied interests, mainly scholastic and bibliophilic; he lives in Bangalore

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