One of my boyhood memories is my visit to the doctor’s clinic, with my father escorting me. The doctor was an LMP, a licensed medical practitioner of those days. Half the time, I was malingering to escape school; but sometimes it was genuine illness. The doctor would press the stethoscope to my chest and ask me to cough. Then he would ask the compounder to give me my medicine. It was always an orange liquid in a glass bottle. A little strip of paper pasted on the bottle read “The mixture”. Diseases might be different, but the medication was always the same.
This was such a common practice in those days that an idiom was formed from it. When a treatment or procedure was to be repeated, you could say, “The mixture as before”. In a modern context, for example, you could say, “Despite all the talk of syllabus reform, it is mixture as before for this year’s students.”
Mixtures are of different kinds. In school science, we read of homogeneous and heterogeneous mixtures and then of mixtures and compounds. In the language of the kitchen, there are several kinds of mixtures. Though some of them have grandiose, even outlandish, names, those words enjoy wide currency, especially in the language of public debate.
The first word that comes to mind is “gallimaufry”. A generation ago, there was a magazine published from Mumbai called The Illustrated Weekly of India . The editor used to contribute a column with the title “Gallimaufry”. The dictionary defines the word as a dish of leftovers, a hotchpotch. The editor wrote on miscellaneous subjects, in a range of tones and styles.
Today, any disparate mixture of facts or thoughts, put together in no particular order, can be called a gallimaufry. Here are the words of Australian member of parliament Douglas Moppet. He criticized the government members who “came down to the chamber, bearing a gallimaufry of false arguments with which to regale the House”.
Its origin has been traced to French “galer”, “to make merry” and north French “mafrer”, “to gorge oneself”.
The next word is “salmagundi”, another favourite of English-speaking politicians. When the devolution of power to Wales was being discussed, Lord Baker of Dorking drew attention to “this very elegant 18th century word”, signifying a dish prepared from scraps of meat and fish, some old onions and eggs. His words on Wales were: “This is a salmagundi of a Bill, and the minister should immediately announce a competition for that to be translated into Welsh...”
Salmagundi has been traced to French “salmagondis”, “seasoned salted meats”, reportedly coined by Rabelais. It soon came to stand for a mixture of disparate things. Here is an example: “The budget this year was a salmagundi of concessions and palliatives to bring relief to the salaried class.”
One is unlikely to see salmagundi in a restaurant menu today, since its main use is figurative. Not so “olla podrida”. It finds a place in the list of soups. The phrase means a stew of seasoned meat and vegetables. “The holy man’s prescription was an olla podrida of astrology, feng shui and numerology.” A book review in Library Journal reads, “(This work) throws together mystery, romance and crime in one big mix like an olla podrida.” If you translate olla podrida into French, you get “potpourri”. This is a widely known phrase. It stands for dried flowers with herbs and spices in a vase to spread fragrance around. Both podrida and pourri have roots meaning “rotten” or “putrid”. Here are some examples from Hansard, Britain’s parliamentary record. “The Hon. member put together a potpourri of headlines from selective sources. So I suggest that he talk to Donald Anderson.” In another context, Lord Howe of Aberavon, commenting on European Union policy towards Ukraine, said, “The poor Ukrainian government had to select out of this potpourri of advice without knowing whether they needed a plumber, electrician or economist.”
We can end with “goulash”, a word that has special relevance to modern European history. It comes from Hungarian “gulyashus”, “beef or lamb soup made by herdsmen while pasturing”.
In the 1960s, communism in Hungary changed complexion. Stalinism lost favour, and the government moved towards Kadarism, named after Janos Kadar, which adopted a more liberal approach to theory. The secret police were restrained, and the country saw an early glimpse of perestroika. This brand of theory, which permitted some elements of a market economy, came to be known as “goulash communism”.
Words such as olla podrida and gallimaufry sound assertive and pompous. You can still choose softer words, including mélange, mishmash, miscellany or just jumble.
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V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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