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I’d fallen in love with language as a child — @ShashiTharoor | #WorldOfWords 1

My father, Chandran Tharoor, was an immense influence on my life. 

— Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor’s World of Words is a weekly column in the Weekend Magazine of the ⁦Khaleej Times in which the politician, diplomat and wordsmith par excellence will dissect words and language. Here’s the inaugural piece, courtesy of the Khaleej Times. 

When the editors of the Khaleej Times invited me to start a column on words and language, I hesitated for a brief moment. A column on words was all very well, but did a serious politician really want to reinforce the image that had grown up of himself as an etymological egghead? As one journalist rather breathlessly asked me, “Your vocabulary has become the subject of memes, comedy shows and now a book! Did you ever think things would take such a turn?”

Well, no, I didn’t. I’d fallen in love with language as a child, and used the words I came across quite unself-consciously, as a beachcomber might blow into the shells he’s picked up on a stroll along the seaside. But in the process, I had inadvertently acquired a rather inflated reputation as a vocabularist. Such reputations tend to build gradually, but mine reached “escape velocity” with a specific tweet. Incensed by a libellous TV programme about me broadcast by a media charlatan, I had tweeted that it was “a farrago of distortions, misrepresentations and outright lies broadcast by an unprincipled showman masquerading as a journalist”. For some reason this had not just struck a chord but triggered an almighty wave of enthusiastic curiosity on the internet. The Oxford English Dictionary even recorded in some puzzlement an unprecedented spike on its search engines, with over a million people looking up the meaning of the word “farrago” within the span of a few hours. My notoriety was established: I was India’s Mr Big Words.

From there it was a short step to being caricatured. Memes rolled off the versatile keyboards of those who seem to spend their creative juices entirely on web parody. Desi wits translated Diwali greetings and descriptions of bhel-puri into logorrheic English and attributed them to me. A clever meme-maker put my tweet into the mouth of Tintin’s Captain Haddock, replacing his usual “billions of blue blistering barnacles”, while a taken-aback Tintin responds, “Captain, I told you to stay away from that Shashi Tharoor fella!” Photographs of my meeting with the then Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, were modified to add a speech bubble above his head, saying, “And I don’t even have a dictionary!” While many of these were formulaic even if good-natured, the best was probably a rueful meme that stated, “I used to think I was poor. Now I’ve met Shashi Tharoor and I realise I’m impecunious.”

There are only two things you can do when a tidal wave of caricature descends upon you like this – either sulk crossly and reject any attempt to slot you into the jokers’ stereotypes, or embrace the caricature and try to turn it to your advantage. I preferred the latter course. So here I am.

Yes, words have always mattered to me. My father, Chandran Tharoor, was an immense influence on my life. After a village and small-town education in rural Malabar, he had moved to the UK in 1948 and re-learned English from scratch. He was my teacher, guide, research adviser, imparter of values, my source of faith, energy and self-belief. My enthusiastic approaches to life and learning are inherited from him; so is my work ethic — and my love for words.

My father was a word-game addict, from Scrabble to Boggle and acrostics in newspapers. He would invent games for my sisters and me, seeing how many words with four letters or more we could make up from the letters in a nine-or-ten letter word. Another game we played on long car journeys was when one passenger had to imagine a five-letter word, and the others guessed at it for 20 attempts by trying out five-letter words and being told only how many letters matched. This great love of words and language, and the inventive ways my father put it to practice, inevitably rubbed off on his eldest child: me.

But it was never just words for their own sake. My father instilled in me the conviction that words are what shape ideas and reflect thought, and the more words you know, the more precisely and effectively are you able to express your thoughts. Hence this column on words, often a source of fascination — and indispensable to communicate. See you here each week!