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Find their language

columns Updated: Sep 01, 2011 10:40 IST
Karan Thapar
Karan Thapar
Hindustan Times
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Have you noticed how Indian politicians can sometimes say the strangest things? We've had a couple of examples recently and they're as perplexing as they are wryly funny. And what they undoubtedly reveal is a certain penchant for malapropism. In the Irish-born playwright Richard B Sheridan, it was witty. In our politicians, it's almost revealing. But more about Sheridan and malapropisms later. Let's start with our politicians.

The first was the good Mr Gadkari. With a flourish that left his own party unimpressed, he's declared that chief minister BS Yeddyurappa's land deals are "not illegal but immoral". And what that means is that, at least in the eyes of the BJP president, the party's Karnataka CM has behaved immorally. Worse, that the BJP is prepared to tolerate it. Frankly, the Congress could not have hoped for better. Either Mr Gadkari was being honest, even if embarrassingly indiscreet, or he was being foolish and did not realise what he had said. Which is it? Perhaps, understandably, the BJP does not wish to say.

But I'm prepared to take a guess. I suspect Mr Gadkari doesn't quite appreciate what the word 'immoral' implies. He probably meant to say Mr Yeddy-urappa's actions were incorrect but not illegal. But rather than limit himself to the gentle euphemism, he opted for the stark and inflexibly tougher word. "Not illegal but immoral" sounds epigrammatic, pithy and even profound. Politicians love such language. Alas, it turned out to be horribly telling.

The second example is Maharashtra deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar. He describes himself as "a ruffian". In fact, his disarmingly self-incriminating statement went a tad further. "Nothing can be achieved in politics unless you are a ruffian," he said, adding with suitable aplomb: "I am a ruffian."

Now who am I to disagree? If he says so, he must be one. But does Mr Pawar know what a ruffian is? According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, it's a "violent lawless person". On the other hand, in Italian opera ruffians are often delightful rogues. Many of Shakespeare's 'fools' fall into a similar category. Several are actually rather likeable. But do you really believe that's what Mr Pawar had in mind?

Of course, Messrs Gadkari and Pawar are only guilty of what are called malapropisms: using words they think they know but that are actually different to what they intend to say. Way back in 1775, Sheridan perfected the practice with his lovable but dotty character Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals. The lady's utterances reveal a delightful misuse of words, but you can always tell what she should have said and what she meant. In fact, she is the origin of the term malapropism.

Here's a selection of her best: "Promise to forget this fellow - to illiterate him, I say, quite from memory"; "She might reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying"; "She's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile"; "He is the very pineapple of politeness"; "I am sorry to say, Sir Anthony, that my affluence over my niece is very small."

My favourite has four malapropisms in one single sentence. See if you can get them all. Here it is: "If I reprehend anything in the world it is the use of my oracular tongue and a nice derangement of epitaphs!" (Substitute with 'apprehend', 'vernacular', 'arrangement' and 'epithets' and you'll discover what she actually wanted to say.)

The views expressed by the author are personal