Wednesday’s Word: Imbroglio
This is another curious word. Coming to us by way of Italian (which is my favorite language by the way), it means an embarrassing or overly complicated or confused set of circumstances, something perhaps scandalous or at the very least awkward and perhaps bordering on the bizarre. You can get a better sense of it by seeing how closely it relates to its more well-known cousin, “embroil”.
If you’ve ever been in an imbroglio, it was most likely not a pleasant experience. Most of the time, however, the events of our lives rarely rise to the level which is required for membership in the imbroglio club. I suppose you could use the term for simple disagreements, misunderstandings, and minor tragedies, but most often that is cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer. This word is best saved for those events which are riddled with shame and mired in enigma. An imbroglio usually has elements of both the tragic and the absurd. The usual response to such situations is disbelief, “I can’t believe this is happening.”
Such events often take the winds from our sails if they happen to us personally, but they can make for fascinating literature. I suppose Hamlet is a textbook example of this. The whole thing is one long, extended imbroglio. Murder, court intrigue, madness, poison, ghosts, and suicide- the whole thing is almost too wild to be believed. And yet as far as literature goes, Hamlet is one of the most oft-told stories and oft-performed plays of a writer whose popularity never seems to wane.
Like a deer stuck in the headlights, there is something about watching an awful series of events that we find hard to resist. Perhaps it is merely a fascination with the bizarre. Perhaps it is in the hopes that we can learn from others’ mistakes. Or perhaps it is merely a way of tacitly acknowledging that there is something of prince Hamlet in all of us. That his story is in some ways the story of us all, if not in actuality then at least potentially.
At the end of the day, though we do not like to admit it, our mistakes can lead us to do terrible things and none of us is immune to this. We speak harshly to those whom we say we love or, perhaps more commonly, we belittle them behind their backs. We lash out in anger at strangers who cut us off on the highway or compose bitter missives in our head that we never send to those who have wronged us. And always the one common thread is that we find a way to justify our behavior to ourselves, telling ourselves that it’s the “right” thing to do using our own crooked experience by which to measure things by.
Of course we’re not as bad as most people, we say. And we can always find someone worse than ourselves, never supposing that they may be looking at us and thinking the exact same thing. But our mistakes differ only in degree, not in kind. And I think it takes a tragedy, an imbroglio, a disaster of epic proportions to awaken some of us to that fact. We often tell ourselves in the face of such events, “I would never do something like that,” or “That could never happen here,” when the reality is simply, that it hasn’t happened yet.