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Appalling Old Waxworks

I could never match the English ability to deliver Arctic blows with the most pacifist language, writes Saumya Balsari.

india Updated: Nov 26, 2005 17:53 IST
Dr Saumya Balsari
Dr Saumya Balsari

There is new vocabulary making the rounds that is tempting to use: "Appalling old waxworks". I could never have imagined such an exquisite combination of words until I read of the jibe ascribed to the Prince of Wales. According to media reports, he apparently described a group of Chinese politicians at a ceremony with the then president, Jiang Zemin, as "appalling old waxworks".

The Prince's alleged views on the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese were published in the Mail on Sunday merely a few days after a state visit by the Chinese president, Hu Jintao. It was claimed that the remarks were to be found in his (the Prince's, that is) journal entitled The Handover of Hong Kong, or The Great Chinese Takeaway.

The brouhaha of who said what about whom to whom and if it all is of little consequence to the language lover. The interest lies purely in the word string itself, whatever its origin. Take the word "appalling": is it not quintessentially English? The mouth opens ever so slightly to say "a", but then gathers momentum with the speed of a racehorse to bite down on the lip for the forceful "palling" in a large "O" of censure.

It goes without saying that the person who uses this word may also use "disgraceful" on occasion. Now, if you think "appalling" isn't already doing the job, then it ought to be preceded by "simply". Anything that is simply appalling is really not worth consideration. It's rock-bottom, and all that. Thus the state of the motorways, other public services, or even the way pets are treated (and sometimes eaten) in other countries, is simply appalling.

Then there is "old". It's a useful little word. It doesn't necessarily mean ancient or elderly. Compliment a woman on her jacket, and she's likely to say (with a startled but pleased smile), "What - this old thing? I've had it for ages!" (It's rare but not inconceivable that she might say the same of her spouse). Finally, the word "waxworks".

Is that not an inspired choice of word far better than the insults in the books (in the Humour section of bookshops with unreliable binding)? I could never match the English ability to deliver Arctic blows with the most pacifist language. Take Benjamin Disraeli's observation of Gladstone in The Times in 1878: "A sophisticated rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity."

Appalling old waxworks - what a civil way of describing some Unclejis!

(Saumya Balsari is the author of the comic novel 'The Cambridge Curry Club', and wrote a play for Kali Theatre Company's Futures last year. She has worked as a freelance journalist in London, and is currently writing a second novel.)

First Published: Nov 26, 2005 00:00 IST