Some political vocabulary with Shashi Tharoor

Word to describe misrule of the last 10 years? Kakistocracy!

Since this column is slated to appear ahead of June 4 when the counting of votes takes place, and given my wholly inflated reputation as one excessively fond of obscure words, I thought I would combine the two and share with readers terms that might enhance their political vocabulary in the present climate.

These elections have seen a large number of empleomaniacs—people with a mania for holding public office—contesting at the hustings. Anyone who willingly subjects themselves to the strain of fund-raising, campaigning in the summer heat for 16 to 18 hours a day and making repetitive speeches to voters for weeks on end, may well be considered a maniac anyway. But empleomania (borrowed from a Spanish word, which is a combination of empleo (employment or public office) and mania) is a malady that afflicts only those truly obsessive about holding political power. (We have quite a few of those in India, of course).

Several of these politicians are, though they usually don’t know it, throttlebottoms. The term, which refers to particularly inept and futile persons in public office, comes from the name Alexander Throttlebottom, a character invented by George Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind for the 1931 musical ‘Of Thee I Sing’. It is more popular in the US than elsewhere in the English-speaking world, but has a deliciously apt sound to it.


While throttlebottoms are usually an innocuous lot of inept politicos, worse still are politicasters, petty or contemptible politicians who are unstatesmanlike practitioners of politics. As the suffix -aster indicates, this is even more of an insult; in English use—aster is added to words to describe people who are in some way inferior, worthless, or not genuine, and comes from Latin, in which language it means ‘only having a partial resemblance’. (In addition to politicaster, we find this suffix used to refer to inferior poets (poetaster), doctors (medicaster), and philosophers (philosophaster). India has its own special breed of journalisasters!)

Another American term we could usefully have borrowed in India is highbinder, meaning a corrupt or scheming politician who engages in fraudulent or shady activities. Highbinder was first used in English at the beginning of the 19th century, as the name of a particularly unruly gang. By the 1870s the word was used across the US to refer to members of Chinese gangs and secret societies. Inevitably, it soon began to be used to describe unscrupulous politicians. There is, as we all know, no shortage of highbinders contesting our present elections!

If elected to high office, many might well prove guilty of misprision, defined as misconduct or maladministration by a public official, in particular the neglect or wrong performance of official duty. Just as, in popular folklore, Eskimos (or more correctly, the Inuit and Yupik-speaking people) are purported to have hundreds of words for snow (which in fact they don’t), and the English are believed to have hundreds of words for being drunk (which in fact they do), one could well argue that Indians should have a plethora of words for political malfeasance. Since we don’t have as many as we need, we could make greater use of “misprision”.

And finally, one word to describe the misrule of the last 10 years, which has become all the more evident in the inflammatory rhetoric we have been hearing in this campaign? It is kakistocracy, a form of government in which the least qualified or most unprincipled individuals are in power. I first suggested years ago in print that, in recent years, it has seemed that the world’s largest democracy has in fact degenerated into a kakistocracy, but the term didn’t quite catch on. Derived from ancient Greek—the speakers of which were pioneers of democratic practice and knew a thing or two about good governance, or the lack thereof—a “kakistocracy” is a government by the worst elements in society. The word comes from the Greek “kakistos”, the superlative form of the word “kakos”, meaning “bad”. It hasn’t been used much in India, despite us undergoing the rule of people who declare they want to replace Mahatma Gandhi’s statues with Godse’s, and speak dehumanisingly of our Muslim fellow-citizens. Maybe it is time we began to use the term!