It is hazardous to write about children because you risk condescending, or making fun of them in that “kids say the funniest things” way – which in no time will curl the toes of all involved; or you invade their privacy. “Kids” itself sounds patronising to me.
So with this in mind I asked our son William if he minded that I write about his not wanting to get confirmed, and he said he didn’t – mind, that is; he also doesn’t want to get confirmed. And we’re not pushing it, because what good would that do?
He would only end up more firmly lapsed, like people did in the old days. Take a friend of mine whose confirmation a few weeks before his 12th birthday is seared on his memory for the wrong reasons. For one thing, he requested Thomas, after the doubting Apostle, as his confirmation name – not unreasonably, given his rapidly developing agnosticism. This was refused. And for another, his confirmation clashed with the 1970 World Cup final – one of the greatest football matches ever, featuring the legendary Brazil team including Pelé against Italy.
Bishop Egan of Portsmouth seems to recognise that the old way of herding young people mindlessly into this sacrament rarely resulted in meaningful conversion. It’s presumably for this reason that in his diocese he requires candidates to write a letter to him stating their desire to be confirmed and describing their “personal faith journey”.
Surely this approach is more likely to lead to real conversion. In the bishop’s moving words: “Write what is in your heart and take this endeavour seriously.”
“The relentless, creepy rise of the enforced happiness industry” is the headline of a gripping piece in the latest issue of the financial magazine Moneyweek.
Apparently a lot of people are doing very well out of exploiting an unrealistic desire for “health and wellness”.
The World Health Organisation absurdly defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease”. But could you ever achieve a state of complete mental wellbeing? And isn’t gloom a more rational response to the human condition than perpetual happiness, otherwise known as mania?
Wellness and the linked “mindfulness” are getting the cash registers jangling to the tune of $4.2 trillion – a guesstimate, admits Moneyweek’s correspondent Jonathan Compton, but there’s no doubt swarms of consultants and therapists are springing up to satisfy demand.
What is not clear is that the happiness programmes which businesses invest in to improve their employees’ productivity are worth it: a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that wellness programmes – lessons in stress reduction, nutrition, fitness etc – at 160 workplaces were of doubtful value.
But what is clear is that red-blooded capitalism has created a society in which many people are isolated, searching for meaning, no longer tethered to community and traditional religion.
Two often quoted observations dovetail nicely in this context: GK Chesterton’s (attributed) that when someone stops believing in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing, but in anything; and the founder of (therapy-infused) Scientology, L Ron Hubbard, that the only way to make any real money was to found a religion.
When asked recently if I could think of a good name for a five-a-side football team my mind went blank.
But marketing creatives earn fortunes devising catchy brand names. The word for this is “phonaesthesia”. It means “sound symbolism”.
The hope is that through onomatopoeia and unconscious associations a brand will stimulate a positive emotional effect. Verizon, the telecommunications company that used to be Bell Atlantic, is an example: it’s a portmanteau combining (according to Wikipedia) veritas (“truth” in Latin) with horizon just as Lewis Carroll’s “mimsy” (All mimsy were the borogoves), meaning unhappy, was a fusing together of “flimsy” and “miserable”.
Or there’s “slather”, one of my favourite words, which is American for what you might do with peanut butter, whipped cream, mayonnaise or ketchup – spread or slosh liberally – and combines somehow slopping and lathering.
The brands that interest me are medicines, because we all know the power of the placebo effect: is it possible that the brand name of medicines might be related to their efficacy? Even if not, it certainly makes them more marketable.
Viagra, for instance, is a tremendously dynamic, powerful name, combining all the Vi’s – vitality, vim, virility – with (perhaps) Niagara. The makers of the drug deny that they had the famous Falls in mind and OED notes an alternative (but unlikely) derivation in the Sanskrit vy-agra, meaning excited.
But as with Librium, the first blockbuster tranquilliser of the benzodiazepine family – which sounds soothing in itself and might stir an auditory recollection too (of “equilibrium”) – the precise meaning doesn’t matter, but together the sound and the associations create their mysterious and wonderful effect.
Andrew M Brown is obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph