Shashi Tharoor’s reputation precedes him. To be specific, his words do. If one could assign a date to this, it would be May 8, 2017, when he challenged a journalist of fabricating stories about him. The tweet which read, “Exasperating farrago of distortions, misrepresentations&outright lies being broadcast by an unprincipled showman masquerading as a journalst” [sic] has since then been lodged in public consciousness in the form of countless iteration and memes.
A former diplomat and current MP, Tharoor took social media attention the way it must be taken: in his stride. What followed was an extension of the same. He shared one word each day for public perusal and started a weekly column in a newspaper on a similar topic later.
This time, he has come up with a book whose title — Tharoorosaurus — gives away the content. He has put together 53 words, one for from every letter of the alphabet. In an interview with indianexpress.com, he spoke about his love for words and pondered over ways it can be nurtured. Had there been any instance where he made a literary faux pas? Short answer: no.
You begin the book by acknowledging your father, Chandan Tharoor. Can you share the relationship you both shared and how you inculcated the love for words from him?
He was everything to me — teacher, guide, research adviser, imparter of values, my source of faith, energy and self-belief. My enthusiasm for life and appetite for learning are inherited from him; so is my workaholism — and my love for words. My father was a Scrabble addict and played every word game that had been invented, including Boggle and the acrostics in newspapers. He would play games with my sisters and me where we would try to see how many words of four letters or more we could make from the letters in a nine- or ten-letter word. He invented word games for family car journeys when one of the passengers had to imagine a five-letter word and the others had to guess it within 20 attempts by trying out five-letter words and being told how many letters matched with the secret word. His fascination for words had to rub off on his eldest child – me!
Exasperating farrago of distortions, misrepresentations&outright lies being broadcast by an unprincipled showman masquerading as a journalst
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) May 8, 2017
The words include everything from an oft-used Apostrophe to a bit archaic Panglossian. Over the years, did you follow any practice to put together the many words you come across?
I have a simple answer to that: reading! I’ve never had any sort of systematic approach to trying to learn new words; I don’t think it’s useful to just go about memorising them for their own sake. My whole life I have read as widely as possible, and when you see the same word being used in multiple contexts, you start to get an idea of its meaning through the way it is situated in the text. The best way to expand one’s vocabulary is through reading, and I would say that that has held true for me all through my life.
In this book, there was no particular reason for the choice of words — they were either words I’d recently used in a tweet (like “farrago”) and (“kakistocracy”), or words that the country was suddenly using a lot more often than usual (like “pandemic” and “quarantine”), or words in the news (like “impeachment” and “apostrophe”), or sometimes just words that I could tell interesting stories about (like & “curfew” and & “defenestrate”).
Even though in the preface you state “this is not a scholarly book” and illustrations confirm it, the book is not without your characteristic wit. For instance, under the word ‘Goon’ you explicate its usage with, “The goons who assaulted students at Jawaharlal Nehru University could not have entered and left without the complicity of the police.”
Did the easy form give you an opportunity to address things which normally would have stirred controversy?
Well, I have never shied away from speaking against injustice when I see it, and of course openly condemned the monstrous violence at JNU and elsewhere. It would feel almost disingenuous, especially in my profession, to write without reference to the terribly unjust times we are living in. Those who committed the violence at JNU most certainly exemplify the word “goon”, so the example you give is also a device for literary accuracy!
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) March 31, 2020
Have you chanced upon an adjective that would adequately describe your affinity for words?
Does love for words need nurturing to be retained?
Most certainly. I don’t think it’s something that one can lose over time — but a consistent reading habit, I believe, goes a long way to continuing to build and strengthen that love. The love of learning is self-reinforcing — the more you practice it, the stronger it becomes. That has certainly been true in my own experience.
Has there been an instance when you used a word in the wrong context?
When you’re in the profession that I am in, one learns early on the importance of choosing your words very carefully, especially if it’s being said in the public domain. I don’t think I have used words in the wrong context, but surely I have made statements that have frequently been either taken out of context or deliberately misinterpreted. The entire “cattle class” episode perfectly illustrates this.
Here was a phrase that was commonly used, particularly in the West, to critically describe the rather inhumane way in which airlines try to pack in as many individuals as possible in economy (or “coach”) class, to boost their bottom lines. And yet, when I used the same phrase to describe economy class in response to a tweet addressed to me, it was instantly misinterpreted as either being elitist or anti-cow or in some cases both. That made me appreciate that in a multilingual polity like ours, familiarity with usage is often a challenge, and wit and humour, in particular, can often be lost in translation.
As Shakespeare famously said, “the success of a jest lies not in the tongue of the teller but in the ear of the hearer” — it does not matter what you intend to convey, what matters is what people hear and think they understand. After a couple of such episodes I have been much more careful!
How does being the unofficial English professor at Twitter feel?
I don’t know if I would call myself that — there are plenty of very talented English professors out there. I am a merely a humble writer and linguaphile: a lover of language!
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