Shashi Tharoor’s word of the week: rodomontade

Rodomontade is a personal, rhetorical and a musical style - of bombast, pomp and flourishes.
Updated on Dec 13, 2019 02:21 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByShashi Tharoor

rodomontade (noun and adjective), boastful or inflated talk or behaviour.

Usage: The politician’s rodomontade speeches sought to conceal his total lack of substance, or indeed of any real accomplishment.

Rodomontade is a delightful word, as swaggeringly self-important as the behaviour it seeks to describe. It originated in the late 16th century as a reference to Rodomonte, the Saracen king of Algiers, a character in both the 1495 poem Orlando Innamorato by Count MM Boiardo, and its sequel, Ludovico Ariosto’s 1516 Italian romantic epic Orlando Furioso, who was much given to vain boasting. I am told the name was inspired by an Italian dialect in which the word literally means ‘one who rolls (away) the mountain’. In English it was used to describe an extravagant braggart.

There’s a line from a John Donne poem from 1612: ‘Challengers cartells, full of Rodomontades’. That suggests that a rodomontade is a single boast that can be multiplied in the plural, but modern usage dispenses with the ‘s’, using rodomontade as a collective noun for an entirely boastful disposition, bombastic language or empty bragging. Literature students might recall this lovely usage in the 19th century novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë: ‘She knows what she’s about; but he, poor fool, deludes himself with the notion that she’ll make him a good wife, and because she has amused him with some rodomontade about despising rank and wealth in matters of love and marriage, he flatters himself that she’s devotedly attached to him’.

Inevitably the word has been used for politicians — one can deliver a speech that is an “empty rodomontade, a string of resounding sentiments aiming not at conviction but at applause”. Or one can use it to describe the style of President Donald Trump, who is much given to extolling himself in the most unselfconsciously boastful terms (“No one knows more about this than me”, he has said, and “I’m the greatest”.)

The word was applied to the rhetorical style of a very different man, too, the boxing champ Muhammad Ali. One newspaper article writes: ‘Until the mid-’60s, rodomontade was rare even in sports. Then came Muhammad Ali. His exuberant braggadocio was what made Ali so different …’. As the Ali example suggests, rodomontade is not confined only to politicians: the Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1919 usage to characterise society in general — ‘These instances in themselves are not edifying to our rodomontade civilisation’.

Rodomontade, by extension, can even apply to music full of pomp and flourishes. The German composer Georg Philipp Telemann composed a Suite in H minor for violin solo and strings which ends with a piece named Rodomontade. The singer Morrissey has described his own music as rodomontade. It is less used in literature, unless one is being distinctly uncomplimentary. Vladimir Nabokov criticised Fyodor Dostoevsky for his “gothic rodomontade”.

Still, politicians are more given to rodomontade than most, and no better example can be found than that of the braggadocious Winston Churchill, whose wartime Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, found him impossible to work with. A senior bureaucrat with the Foreign Office,Alexander Cadogan, counselling his boss, was reported to have said: “his rodomontades probably bore you as much as they do me, but don’t do anything silly under the stress of that”. (The plural crept in as late as 1940, and in written accounts of this exchange there is an extra “h”in the spelling, rhodomontade, which is definitely not the preferred style today.) Even Roy Jenkins in his adulatory biography of Churchill wrote of a general who “revealed a plain soldier’s distaste for the publicity rodomontade which always attended Churchill”.

Churchill’s adversaries, the Nazis, were no better. The great chronicler of the worst war crimes of that era, Hannah Arendt, in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, describes Adolf Eichmann’s boasting: “Bragging was the vice that was Eichmann’s undoing. It was sheer rodomontade when he told men working under him during the last days of the war: ‘I will jump into my grave laughing, because the fact that I have the death of five million Jews... on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction’.”

In my UN days, the Falklands War of 1982 led to strongly critical attacks in the UN Security Council on Britain as a colonial power imposing its military will on Argentina. The UK Ambassador, Sir Anthony Parsons, began his response to the Security Council debate by saying: “Obviously we expected other delegations to give bent to atrociously offensive, confused and ill-directed rodomontades against my country...”

On the whole, then, rodomontade is best avoided; simple language is always preferred. After all, the character Rodomonte’s extravagantly boastful talk in the epic leads to his death. Speak modestly, and you can stay alive!

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