Words don’t come easy

WHAT DO fantastic, lullaby, pumpkin, flip-flop and hen night have in common? They all appear on a list of the 70 most beautiful words in the English language, compiled by the British Council on the occasion of its 70th anniversary. From Austria to Venezuela, more than 40,000 people in 102 non-English speaking countries took part in the huge survey, which has produced some surprising results.

The linguistic chart is topped by ‘mother’, making it the best loved English word among foreigners. It is also the only one among the chosen 70 which describes a direct relationship between people, emphasising the importance of the bond between mother and child throughout our lives. Then again, given the fact that the word for mother is similar, or at least begins with the letter ‘m’, in the overwhelming majority of the world’s languages, a certain natural affinity might be responsible for the word’s popularity. Those surveyed were allowed to choose on either meaning or sound.

Still, mothers are important, perpetuating life, creating and forming as no-one else can. The recent bestseller The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, goes even further, presenting the premise that our whole civilisation, dating back to biblical times, has been shaped by the nature and power of the female and hence mother of the species and the struggle of men to usurp that pre-eminence.

Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir apart, mothers do not, as a rule, make war. Fathers do. It is therefore perhaps not so surprising that the word father does not appear on the list, along with another pugnacious creature, the mother-in-law. Both have lost their appeal in our modern society, the father fulfilling a function today as opposed to a role.

Man’s progressive emasculation in the crumbling traditional family unit may be partly to blame for an increased propensity for violence from domestic football terraces to the Gulf, but it also strengthens the position of the mother. Modern day mothers are educated, economically independent, capable, one-woman armies, accustomed to struggle and to succeed. Sperm can now be frozen, reused and cloned; fathers are becoming obsolete. Man’s standing in general is going through a bad patch at the moment. Think of something bad, something negative and, yes, the male of the species is to blame. Be it Bush, Blair, Schröder or Barroso, the people are suffering. You don’t see women giving the Nazi salute on television, nor do you read about female ringleaders connected to prostitution, people trading or paedophilia. As the survey shows, mothers are tops, fathers are not.

Other words chosen in the top 10 of the survey reflect the world’s desire to return to a time of peace and love. Peace is actually at No.11, but love is No.4, just behind smile and passion. Eternity, destiny, freedom, liberty and tranquillity make up the remaining spaces.

Now, a cynic might choose to speak of indoctrination or an over-exposure to Hollywood or Beatles’ albums, but I feel that these words of hope express a universal desire to live in harmony and political stability. Our so-called elected and self-appointed representatives may do well to canvass the mood of those they claim to act for, or else they may soon find themselves in a position where no-one pays attention.

I cannot spot the word democracy anywhere either, indicative maybe of the fact that the concept has outlived its usefulness. The will of the majority, a basic underlying principle of our western political system, is no longer represented. Electorates are presented with a limited, conceptualised choice, which does not represent a choice. The party political apparatus has become a self-perpetuating machine restricted to rhetoric, growing increasingly nauseous and similar in its content.

Who, in all honesty, can differentiate between Conservative, Labour or Liberal policies today? Self-serving, myopic careerists have lost all accountability and sensibility vis-à-vis those they purport to speak for. In England, Labour has hijacked the Conservative agenda and vice versa, while Social Democrats and UKIP xenophobes pick over the crumbs. In America, a Presidency carries a 70 million dollar price tag. If you cannot attract that sort of funding, you may as well stay in bed. If you do, it does not matter whether you are a Democrat or a Republican. You are a hostage and a spokesperson for the established order.

Here in Portugal, too, the purity of feeling conveyed by the people in 1974 has been sullied and corrupted in a very short space of time. A young democracy, barely 30 years old, is drowning in a mire of its own creation. Everything is personal, almost masonic, including oceans of money that seem to have evaporated. The country is facing financial and moral bankruptcy leading to an astonishing resurgence of Salazar nostalgia. In a time of increasing social problems, which threaten the social fabric as well as the security of the sacred family, the government is carrying out drastic cuts in exactly those public sectors that exist to deal with these very problems. The time has come for politicians to reinvent themselves, to look back to their roots. With ever-diminishing resources and a continuing population explosion, a global, not national, view is needed. A benevolent absolute power wielded by a council of wise men. A Utopian wish, an impossible dream, I know. But, ultimately, the only feasible reality if we are to survive as one humanity, rich and poor, privileged and exploited.

However, I fear a major disaster, an implosion of biblical proportions, is necessary before the survivors can pick up the pieces and start again from the beginning, hopefully wiser and better equipped to manage the unique world in which we live and are in the process of destroying.

Back to beautiful words. In the chosen 70, several of those not yet mentioned appeal, such as loquacious, paradox or smithereens, if for no other reason than the delicious and vivacious way they roll off the tongue. But my personal favourite has to be No. 24 – serendipity. I must admit that prior to seeing the film of that title a few years back, the exact meaning of this wonderful word was somewhat lost on me. If you, like me, cannot put your finger on it, serendipity refers to something like a ‘happy coincidence’.

There are times when I am convinced that my whole life has been guided by this phenomenon, but, in more rational moments, I realise that there is more to it than that. We can all experience ‘happy coincidences’ in our daily pursuit of happiness. Granted, a slice of luck is involved, but the principal prerequisite is that we take action to manoeuvre ourselves into a position to maximise the chances of something good occuring. This will not happen if you sit at home and wait. No one knows that you are there.

Similarly, following your daily routine, without deviation, will in all probability not result in changes to your life. We are constantly confronted with choices, which are ours to make. The safe one is not always the right one. The old saying “nothing ventured, nothing gained” does not necessarily restrict itself to financial matters. It is a philosophy that can be applied to all aspects of our lives. We can all do a little to save ourselves and, in the process, contribute to creating the kind of circumstances that will give the future a chance.