The missing word

By , 30 October 2009 6:30 pm

Well my flu is more or less over but I don’t feel inclined to tackle the heights of theological debate just at the moment, although thank you all for your contributions. Today I want to try something else and it’s still a slightly difficult topic. You see I was sitting in traffic the other day, listening to yet another volume in Suzuki’s excellent Bach series, and I tried – and failed – to come up with a word to describe the qualities of the performance. In the end I felt I that there probably wasn’t an English word to describe the sentiment I want to express. Not only that but I realised that if such an adjective existed I would be able to use it for an awful lot of things that I value. ‘Go on!’ I hear you say ‘what was it?’ Well here the problem begins because, of course, there isn’t a single word to describe it. If there was I wouldn’t be writing this blog would I?

Let’s start by saying that the missing adjective is an admirable quality that brings together virtues from three separate areas. First, it is close to such ideas as ‘reliable’, ‘trustworthy’ and ‘will never you down’. Yet it is more than merely reliable because it is also the quality of being consistently good and even excellent. Second, there is also something about it that is, well, understated: it doesn’t draw attention to itself, it isn’t flamboyant or garish but it just does what has to be done and does it well. In fact, it can be so understated that you even forget it’s there. A final aspect is that it is profoundly ‘comfortable’ and never awkward, unpleasant or challenging. The nearest word I can come to is the word ‘homely’ but that isn’t quite right. (If memory serves me correctly, in the old days if you couldn’t call a girl ‘pretty’ you called her ‘homely’ which was very definitely damning with faint praise.)

Do you sense what I’m trying to express? Perhaps you are fluent in a language in which such a word exists. If such a word was available in English then I would use it not just for this series, but for many other things. I might start with the trainers I am wearing at the moment (reliable, comfortable and very unflamboyant). I would use it (99% of the time) for the now ageing turbodiesel VW Golf that I go to work in. I have colleagues for whom I could probably use this word; dependable, easy to overlook but always pleasant and always comfortable to be with. I live in a house for which I could use the word. I have at least one anorak which would be accurately described this way. Many of us are fortunate enough to have marriage partners who we would happily describe with such an adjective. I’ve no doubt that C S Lewis had pubs (especially on wet winter nights) for which he would have used such a word gladly. In fact, I’m fairly certain that no single word exists in English. If it did I have no doubt it would be used frequently by poets and writers for the English rural landscape itself, for it applies to that: consistently good, quietly understated and easy to be at home with.

By now you are probably thinking well this will be one of those rare blogs where Chris doesn’t bring in Christianity. Well I’m sorry to disappoint you; isn’t it precisely this sort of quality (unfailing, unobtrusive, and never irritating) than actually conveys the sort of consistent Christian life that we really ought to live? Yet the interesting thing is that these qualities are rarely trumpeted as being desirable values today. It seems to me that we are in danger of being taught to applaud only the dramatic and even the shocking rather than those things that are ‘merely’ good, decent and workmanlike. Passion and even infatuation are elevated over affection and compassion. We are asked to applaud celebrities and megastars with their towering and brittle egos rather than men and women who do ordinary jobs effectively modestly and with grace. No, whatever we decide we could call my mystery virtue, I think I’ll happily stick with that.

7 Responses to “The missing word”

  1. Bruce IV says:

    pity … I was hoping someone had come up with the missing word – I tend to use “classy” in a similar sense, but it doesn’t quite fit.

  2. Boaz says:

    How about coining a neologism: wallesque? Or would that be quixotic task to undertake?

  3. kirsty says:

    Would ‘solid’ fit?

  4. ChrisW says:

    Hmm worthy tries. In fact ‘worthy’ isn’t bad either. ‘Classy but understated’ perhaps? ‘Solid’ sounds a wee bit like porridge. ‘Solid quality?’ As for wallesque Hmmm………………

  5. sandy lewis says:

    Being a welsh speaker, I find using Welsh terms instead of English ones instantly brings warmth, solidarity and feeling to what I’m describing. It’s like using ‘Hiraeth’. It has no true translation but some do describe it as: homesickness, longing, yearning, nostalgia. All, to me, make me think of home and my love of Wales and I can only express this as ‘Hiraeth’. So in your case Chris, welsh might have the answer, your ‘lost’ word. I’m not fluent so I can’t give you a definite answer, but I do know that homely in welsh is ‘cartrefol’ and not only does this make me feel warm, I think it’s a solid word and a word that could mean so many things. I hope this helps! God Bless.

  6. Caleb says:

    I appreciate the treasures from Welsh. Here in the States, we occassionally resort to Yiddish terms when nothing else in English quite does the trick.
    As for coining a new term, why not adapt a common one. Would “contentous” convey the idea of something that inspires contentment? Sadly, the word itself doesn’t have a very contenous ring to it; too much of “contend” or “contest” to be truly restful.

  7. Nate says:

    I’d almost suggest you were describing Christopher Alexander’s ‘Quality Without A Name’, which I think he now just calls ‘life’. A sort of comfortable, habitable excellence which borders on spirituality.

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