Lexical Investigations: Desiderata

'Wish list' written on a spiral padDesiderata is a plural noun, with the singular form desideratum, meaning “things wanted or needed.”

For many, the word desiderata most often evokes a famous poem by Max Ehrmann, written in 1927 and often referred to simply as Desiderata, without attribution or quotation marks. The poem begins with the oft-quoted lines, “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, / and remember what peace there may be in silence.”

Though the poem has achieved a mythic quality and a near-spiritual significance for some, it wasn’t well known until the 1970s when it was made into hugely popular posters and sound recordings. Even Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek fame included a spoken-word rendition of Desiderata on his 1968 album Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy in the track “Spock Thoughts.” Listen to “Spock Thoughts” here.Desiderata can be traced back to the 19th century, when it became fashionable for English-speakers to use little-known Latin words in place of shorter, more common Anglo-Saxon terms. Latin words were thought to be more elegant and more precise than their English counterparts, and the users of these words no doubt hoped to be seen as more intellectual and sophisticated. Desiderata gained popularity in the early 1800s as part of this trend, which had many critics. In 1864, Henry Alford wrote that English “is undergoing a sad and rapid process of deterioration. Its fine manly Saxon is getting diluted into long Latin words not carrying half the meaning.” Many, like Alford, considered Latinate words pretentious, and advocated for what they considered a purer form of English.

Spanish and French also absorbed desiderata from Latin, and the word continues to have the same meaning in both languages today.

Some writers misuse desiderata as a singular noun. The correct singular form is desideratum.

Popular References:

“Desiderata,” The Poems of Max Ehrmann, Max Ehrmann (1927). The text was largely unknown in the author’s lifetime. After its use in a devotional, it was turned into a hugely popular poster.The Queen’s English: stray notes on speaking and spelling, by Henry Alford. A. Strahan, 1864.Desiderata, Madder Mortem, CD (2006).English in nineteenth-century England: an introduction, by Manfred Görlach, 1999.

Relevant Quotations:

“When you arrive at Savannah, I have many desiderata, as usual.”

—Henry Muhlenberg, Reliquiae Baldwinianae: selections from the correspondence of the late William Baldwin (1843)

“When posters of the poemDesiderata’ adorned dormitory walls in the 70s, an entire column was devoted to clearing up its clouded origins.”

—Reference and Adult Services Division of the American Library Association, RQ, Vol 25 (1986)

A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.
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