Desideratum – It is Still a Beautiful Word
‘Integrity was a desideratum.’
This is the example sentence which the Oxford Online English Dictionary cites to help explain this plainly and beautifully Latin term. Lexicographers appear to agree a ‘desideratum’ is ‘something wanted or needed’, but the fact that it inherently carries this degree of ambiguity is part of its intriguing charm.
When a speaker claims that something is a ‘desideratum’, is it actually an essential or do they just strongly wish that it were?
Like many other nouns of Latin origin, such as ‘criterion’ and ‘datum’, its plural is ‘desiderata’. As with ‘criteria’ and ‘data’, this is probably the form which we hear most frequently in speech or see in writing, made famous by Max Ehrmann’s rousing poem of the same name. (I’ve included this below for those who are unfamiliar with it; it really is amazing.)
Remarkably, it retains the precise spelling and meaning of the original Latin term, which entered English in the mid-17th century, the past participle of ‘desiderare’, simply meaning ‘desire’. Its verb counterpart, ‘desiderate’, meaning to feel a keen desire (especially for something lacking or absent) entered English at around the same point but is now obsolete.
So, strangely, though we now longer desiderate money or pleasure, they remain desiderata.
Ehrmann concludes his list of life’s essentials with ‘Strive to be happy.’ I’ll close on the same note by inferring that Ehrmann is trying to tell us implicitly that happiness is an inherent, obvious desideratum in life, but we have to put in a little effort to achieve it.
And I think lovely words like ‘desideratum’ can go a good way to cheering us in our struggles.
Desiderata by Max Ehrmann
Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Strive to be happy.