There is a phrase of Emily Dickinson’s that I try to live by:
We used to think, Joseph, when I was an unsifted girl and you so scholarly that words were cheap & weak. Now I don’t know of anything so mighty. There are [those] to which I lift my hat when I see them sitting princelike among their peers on the page. Sometimes I write one, and look at his outlines till he glows as no sapphire.
‘Words matter’ (‘Le parole sono importanti’), as Nanni Moretti cried in Palombella Rossa. And, like human beings, they need looking after: they have the right to an identity, to a semantic area in which to carry out their work in peace, coherently, but at the same time, every now and then, they show a desire to change, to surprise us, to cross the border into the realm of metaphor. They must be respected, left free and un-abused, when we happen to stumble upon them during their absent-minded search for an object or an idea to name.
If you misuse a word, you reduce it to a thin, dry casing, like the skin of a serpent which has been shed. You kill it. I’m telling you this because when I have nothing to do I often find myself making a ‘list of misused words’, of those words which come into use and become colloquial, fashionable, omnipresent. In the end, you use them out of laziness, because it’s easier to get the shopkeeper to wrap the present than to do it yourself. And this is the reason why I draft this list: to force myself to find alternatives. You won’t be surprised to hear that among the words broken down by usage, many are related to tourism. Today, for example, I was reflecting on the word benessere (the Italian for wellbeing), or if you prefer (and I for one certainly don’t), ‘wellness’.
Benessere is a beautiful word, primal and delicate, charged with describing that particular state when body and mind are in harmony with each other and their surroundings. A word such as this should not be mistreated: it is too closely associated with who and what we are – it is, in short, too human. But ‘the laws of the market’, to use another invented expression, have little to do with humanity. And so it happens that a powerful word such as benessere must scurry back and forth to lend prestige to such and such a situation, deployed in promotional discourse right, left and centre. And at the end of the day it arrives home exhausted, de-humanised, further and further away from its roots. How many times have you heard this word – benessere, wellbeing - used in the last few years? Have you used it or heard it used to describe an intimate mental and physical state of being? I imagine that the majority of the time you’ve seen it used to describe various beauty spas, gyms and hotels. This in itself isn’t a crime, and as we’ve already heard from Marina Pieroncini, manager of Riserva Privata San Settimio, today any such business must have a benessere or wellbeing centre attached to it, in order to compete in the market.
The point, though, is the way that we use words, the sort of atmosphere that we associate with them. There is a way to breathe new life into the tired quasi-corpse of the word benessere. Words, unlike human beings, can be revived, reborn. Even if it can’t be completely detached from its now permanent association with the world of markets and money, you can think carefully about the situations in which you choose to deploy benessere: using it in relation to humanity rather than money. When this hierarchy of usage is respected, just like in San Settimio, not only will whoever seeks benessere find it, but the word itself will be reborn into a new life, because the sense of humanity the word has lost through over-usage, will be recovered through being used by people who really cares about you.
As ever, it is individuals who can make a difference. And we at Paradise Possible have chosen only to support and endorse those who are making such a difference.
The Paradise Trotter