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When the London Daily Mirror reported a British television personality as saying “It was terribly bad timing after the farrago of the chocolate bar wedding photo” (don’t ask), or when a writer recently said in the Washington Post that a film shoot “was a famous farrago of disaster”, one begins to wonder whether a new sense of the word is developing.

Farrago, in its more usual sense of a confused mixture, turns up so often in phrases of condemnation like “a farrago of excuses and obfuscation”, “a farrago of deceit and lies”, or “a rambling farrago of half-digested knowledge”, that it has become one of those all-purpose dismissive words that ought to appear in public only when attached to a health warning. The word, I suspect, has no meaning for most people apart from negative associations in such set phrases. To judge from the company it keeps, it is much favoured by judges and journalists but by hardly anybody else.

It’s hard to be sure from the evidence, but there are indications that people are sometimes using farrago to mean a lot of noise and argument about nothing very much, or some happening or event which has gone disastrously wrong. The Oxford English Dictionary has on file an example from as long ago as 1989 that looks as though it is going that way — David Kalstone wrote in Becoming A Poet: “Recalling the ‘farrago’ years later, Bishop said that she never again sent Moore any of her poems for suggestions or approval”. It looks very much as though people are confusing it with fiasco or furore, and through that confusion creating a new deprecatory sense for the word.

But then, farrago has been a negative word right from its first recorded appearance, in the middle of the seventeenth century in John Row’s Historie of the Kirk of Scotland: “A strange miscellanie, farrago, and hotch-potch of Poperie, Arminianisme, and what not”.

This is only a few years after farrago appeared in the language in its original literal sense. It was at first applied to mixtures of things, such as a dish of food (so it was close in meaning to salmagundi), and also to mixed races of people. Its origin was the Latin word spelled the same way, which meant mixed fodder for cattle. This was taken from far, the name the Romans had for a type of wheat that we now call spelt, much cultivated at the time in Southern Europe. So farrago is actually a close relative of farina, the breakfast cereal.

However, few people seem to have ever used farrago in English to mean a literal mixture and that sense is long defunct. The figurative sense seems to have come in almost immediately and has been dominant ever since. Perhaps a further change is taking place, but we will have to wait a few years to be sure either way.

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Page created 01 Sep 2001