A Tharoorian guide to complex English words

Updated: 30 August, 2020 09:04 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

He is not a nutcase who pores over dictionaries all day. MP-author Shashi Tharoor says he is simply a voracious reader, and his new book of 53 examples from his vocabulary is a result of that

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

As an asthmatic child, often confined to the bed, Member of Parliament from Kerala and writer Dr Shashi Tharoor often took to the comfort provided by books. This was in the era of fewer distractions. There was no television, mobile phone, PlayStation, or the Internet. "They [books] were my entertainment, my escape and my education. I would read copiously and indiscriminately," he shares. When he came across the same words in different books and in various contexts, he quickly learned "how they are used, their meanings and nuances". "As a result, my vocabulary naturally expanded," Tharoor adds, in an email interview.

His new book, Tharoorosaurus (Penguin Random House), where he shares 53 examples from his vocabulary and from every alphabet, is a tribute to Tharoor's everlasting preoccupation with unusual words. It's also a rare treat from the Sahitya Akademi-winning author, who, for a change, has steered away from his academic and historical pursuits to pen a book that can be enjoyed by both kids and adults. "I have been fascinated with words, but not for their own sake—rather for what they can convey or evoke. I have always maintained a strong reading habit, reading extensively and widely, and my vocabulary has certainly been a byproduct. Yes, it is true that I have sometimes playfully used a rather obscure or complicated word during some of my tweets, such as the one where I announced the arrival of my new book at the time, The Paradoxical Prime Minister, floccinaucinihilipilification. But that has mostly been just fun and not necessarily a reflection of the way I regularly speak or write," he says.

The idea for the book was born out of a column that Tharoor used to have in a Sunday newspaper, till recently, where he would discuss a new word, every week. "The plan when I started this project was to provide one word for each week in the year and therefore, 52 words in total—similar to the column. With an additional week included to account for a leap year, we ended up with 53 words in total."

There was no particular reason for the choice of words he included in the book. "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'), or sometimes just words that I could tell interesting stories about (like 'curfew'
and 'defenestrate')."

Defenestrate is also a word that he is "overly fond of" and goes back to his college days at St Stephen's in Delhi. "The word literally means 'to throw out of a window', and while opportunities for its literal usage are limited in our civilized times, its metaphorical possibilities are limitless! Especially for an Opposition MP trying to defenestrate the ruling party," he quips. A word, he feels, Indians should be using more often is "agathokakological," which means something or someone made up of both good and evil. "We see so many examples of agathokakological people, situations, and stories in our daily lives in India."

What Tharoor finds most amusing is when people ask him, which dictionary or thesaurus he refers to, to improve his vocabulary. "People think I am some sort of nutcase who studies dictionaries all day long, but the reality is that I have barely opened a dictionary in my life."

His mantra is simple—read. "But don't just do so for the sake of memorising words [a habit that I would strongly discourage] but read for the sake of expanding your horizons and interests. In today's world, two clicks of the mouse or a fraction of the time on your smartphone can get you the meaning of a word, but read for its own sake, and the usage [which is what matters] will follow."

Book Review

'I found it fun, knowledgeable'

Vivaan Crasto
Std 7, Campion School, Fort


"Tharoorosaurus is packed with interesting words. The words are big and tough to pronounce, but I enjoyed it because of the descriptions that accompany every word. I found the book to be very knowledgeable. It has also been written in a fun way. Though slightly tricky to understand at first, Mr Tharoor's explanations on how to use these words, help you get a hang of them quickly. My favourite word is authorism—it means a 'word, phrase or name created by an author, which passes into common usage.' For instance, the works of Shakespeare include hundreds of authorisms. Words like 'critical' and 'hurry' were unheard of before his time. This story was interesting and made it easy for me to understand. I am also very proud that Mr Tharoor has written this book, because like him, I am a Campionite, too."

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First Published: 30 August, 2020 08:17 IST

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