MERCURIAL (adj. m?r-`kyur-e-?l\)
1: subject to sudden or unpredictable changes of mood or mind, syn: capricious, fickle, skittish, temperamental, unstable, volatile.
In the weeks to come, the late King Father’s legacy will be contested as bitterly as it was while he lived, and in the aftermath of the sombre atmosphere which accompanied his funeral procession, it feels inappropriate to reinvigorate the age-old debate over his character, his objectives and his accomplishments.
There will be time for that in the weeks ahead as there was time for it in the decades past.
Suffice it to say though, his Sangkum Reastr Niyum government did not yield the land of milk and honey his admirers are wont to recall, and he was not the self-absorbed egomaniac his detractors seek to smear him.
Luckily, there’s one nine-letter word that’s served as an easy catch-all for the personal complexities and furtive manoeuvrings for as long as the late monarch has been a political contender
“Cambodia’s mercurial monarch,” reads the headline of the South China Morning Post. “The mercurial Sihanouk was a man of contradictions,” writes Kay Johnson of Time. “Mercurial, vain, contradictory, with an impossibly twisting career,” according to Donald Kirk, Southeast Asia correspondent for the BBC.
Other offenders: the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, The Independent, the Financial Times, and the Associated Press, who managed to slot everybody’s favourite Sihanouk adjective into the seventh word of their widely-syndicated obituary.
Journalist and former Post reporter Sebastian Strangio presaged the dull uniformity of the vocabulary employed for written remembrances of the King in a piece for Asia Times penned on Monday:
“To outside observers, Sihanouk’s rapid political shifts and well-cultivated dilettantism made for an often bewildering mix – the descriptor “mercurial” quickly became compulsory in journalistic copy...” he wrote.
The prize for the most egregious use of the word belongs to Jim Middleton, longtime presenter of the Australia Network’s Newsline current affairs show, during an interview with Julio Jeldres, Sihanouk’s former private secretary and biographer.
Jeldres was first acquainted with the King when he was a young boy in Chile, becoming fascinated with Cambodia and entering into a lifelong personal correspondence with the country’s then leader. After the perfunctory Khmer Rouge Tribunal opener, Middleton decided to ask of arguably the most intimate of Sihanouk’s non-familial relations:
“I met him many many years ago and he struck me at the time, both in appearance and in character, as something of a – if I can put it this way –mercurial magician”- Middleton’s voice starts to trail off, suffocated under the weight of his flimsy thesis.-“is that a reasonable assessment of him… do you think?”
Jeldres was of course his usual gracious self, and the interview continued with reasonable vigour for the next couple of minutes, although what was discussed prior to that is a matter of conjecture: Newsline has yet to upload a transcript of the program, and most viewers of the program were deafened by the sound of their own violent eye-rolling.