Shashi Tharoor’s word of the week: Farrago

Hindustan Times | ByShashi Tharoor
Nov 02, 2019 05:52 PM IST

Last year, this word was widely used by the Twitterati across India

Farrago (noun), hodgepodge, a confused mix, a jumble.

((HT Illustration: Gajanan Nirphale))
((HT Illustration: Gajanan Nirphale))

The channel’s accusations against me were a farrago of lies, misrepresentations and half-truths broadcast by an unprincipled showman masquerading as a journalist.

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Farrago, a word that I was excessively fond of using in rebutting my debating opponents at St Stephen’s College in the early 1970s, was invented around the 1630s and came from a Latin root for “medley, mixed fodder, mix of grains for animal feed.” It stands for a jumble, a confused mixture, and is particularly handy when refuting arguments in a debate, lending itself to frequent use in the British parliament, for instance, in phrases like “a farrago of excuses and obfuscation”, “a farrago of deceit and lies”, “a farrago of conspiracy theories and unproven assertion” or “a rambling farrago of half-digested knowledge”. The commentator Peter Bergen once dismissed a claim by the journalist Seymour Hersh as “a farrago of nonsense that is contravened by a multitude of eyewitness accounts, inconvenient facts and simple common sense”. One stern linguist disapproved of the word’s use, saying farrago “has become one of those all-purpose dismissive words that ought to appear in public only when attached to a health warning.”

My denunciation of defamatory accusations by an Indian television channel (that I had separately characterized as the digital equivalent of a toilet roll) briefly resurrected the word’s usage in India, leading to the creation of a spate of social media handles using the word. Some of my serial abusers on Twitter even lamely took to calling me “Mr Farrago”. But I claim no particular proprietorship of the word. When political critics dredged up a decade-old Oxford debate of Mehdi Hasan’s in which he uses the word, and accused me of stealing it from him, we both laughed; Hasan replied that neither he nor I had invented the term. A diligent reader promptly came up with a citation from a 1993 article I wrote in the Washington Post, and another from my 1997 book India from Midnight to the Millennium, which employed the word. It is true, though, that it isn’t very widely used: to cite the disapproving linguist again: “To judge from the company it keeps, it is much favoured by judges and journalists but by hardly anybody else.”

Some people, it seems, have begun using “farrago” to mean a lot of noise and argument signifying nothing, or some happening or event which has proved a fiasco or caused a furore. That is, strictly speaking, wrong usage, though English, with its marvellous elasticity, may well evolve to accommodate this different sense of the word in due course. For now, let’s just remember it whenever we are tempted to turn on our television and change to a channel that claims the nation wants to know what it should never believe.

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