(HT Illustration: Sudhir Shetty)
(HT Illustration: Sudhir Shetty)

Shashi Tharoor, on the truth about good and evil

The Congress leader who’s had all of us reaching for our dictionaries, links shades of grey and the Mahabharata in this time’s Word of the Week.
Hindustan Times | By Shashi Tharoor
UPDATED ON MAY 12, 2019 08:47 AM IST

AGATHOKAKOLOGICAL, (adjective): consisting of both good and evil

USAGE: The Mahabharata is unusual among the great epics because its heroes are not perfect idealised figures, but agathokakological human beings with desires and ambitions who are prone to lust, greed and anger and capable of deceit, jealousy and unfairness.

Let’s face it, ours is an agathokakological world, and who knows that better than Indians? We live in an era devoid of perfect heroes, where some who are hailed with passionate admiration are despised with equal intensity by others. Nothing around us seems all good or all bad. The perfect word to summarise that is agathokakological, which seems to have been coined in the early 19th century by sometime British Poet Laureate Robert Southey, best known for his ballad ‘The Inchcape Rock’, which tells the story of a 14th-century attempt by the Abbot of Aberbrothock to install a warning bell on a sandstone reef called Inchcape (I studied the blessed poem in Mumbai in Class 6, which is why I’ve even heard of Southey).

So the word precedes Agatha Christie, whose villainous narrators and seemingly innocent murderers are not the inspiration for the term. Southey appears to have combined the Greek roots agath-(good), kako- (a variant of cac-, meaning bad), and -logical (which comes from logos, meaning word).

Southey was particularly prone to coming up with new words, or neologisms; the Oxford English Dictionary cites him as the earliest known author for almost 400 words. Unfortunately for him, very few of his coinages ever caught on, and agathokakological is not exactly in wide use either. The fact is that most of Southey’s compound words were on the hefty side, and few filled as much of a gap in the language as this one arguably does. After all, do we really need other Southey inventions like futilitarian (a person devoted to futility) or batrachophagous (frog-eating)? One word which might just see a revival, though, is epistolisation (writing in the form of a letter): as abbreviations, acronyms and emojis become substitutes for real words, may we dare hope for the epistolisation of emails?

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