Why, peace, love, quidditch and at number one - serendipity

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The London Literary Festival's search to find the nation's favourite word might have been nugatory, jejune and specious but it clearly touched at least some imaginations.

The London Literary Festival's search to find the nation's favourite word might have been nugatory, jejune and specious but it clearly touched at least some imaginations.

While the voting figures stand as a mere drip against the tidal wave of national opinion over who should or should not win Big Brother - a modest 15,000 people actually went as far as to cast a vote for their favoured lexical unit - the early hustings have been widely reported on radio and in print.

And yesterday the winner was announced to be "serendipity", leading "quidditch" (an airborne form of hockey from the Harry Potter books) by a nose. J K Rowling fans had clearly been out in force - "muggle" (an ethnic slur for those who lack magical powers) came in at number eight, sharing the platform with "football", "hello" and "family" but ceding higher places to "love", "peace", "hope" and "faith" (third, fourth, sixth and seventh respectively).

A familiar Anglo-Saxon intensifier crashes in at number nine narrowly ahead of "Jesus", who was obliged to share tenth with "money" in a classic split of God and Mammon.

Anyone dismayed by the fact that verbal frivolity should have edged out more memorable and solemn words should bear in mind that all words were coinages once; "serendipity", which means a happy accident, was itself effectively writer's contrivance, being given general currency by Horace Walpole's 1754 story The Three Princes of Serendip, whose heroes were "always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of".

Voting was clearly along three distinct lines. Some of the electorate plumped for a conceptual approach, in which the word is treasured for what it means, rather than any intrinsic qualities of its own.

That resulted in a distinct piety dividend for abstractions such as "peace" and "love". Others settled for mere physical pleasure - students of form put the fifth placing of "onomatopoeia" down to the fact that it looks unpronounceable but actually provides a satisfying (and not particularly challenging) oral workout.

Finally there was an aspirational or show-off element - noticeable rather more in also-rans such as "eleemosynary" (charitable) and "pneumono-ultramicroscopicsilicovolcano-coniosis" (a lung disease) than in the final placing.

The unalloyed triumph of "serendipity" can probably be explained by the fact that it scores in all three categories.

It describes something that almost everyone would like to be more common, those five tripping syllables will briefly get even the clumsiest tongue tap-dancing and the word is ideally located for the adventurous verbal tourist - not so remote that it requires technical equipment but not so close to home that it feels boringly domestic either - it offers the linguistic equivalent of a package tour to the Himalayas.

There was evidence, fortunately, of a more querulous streak in the electorate. "Why" shared the number four spot with "peace" a note of bulldog blockade stubbornness among the good intentions and single-issue tactical voting.

The merits of "why" are obvious: only three letters long and yet useful on a thousand and one occasions - from "I'm afraid you'll have to move your car, sir" to "Let's find out what the nation's favourite word is".

Comments