Globalization has expanded the collective wisdom of humankind by pooling words from thousands of languages. Author Lucy Turner has chosen nine of them as the basis for “9 Wonder Words: A Language for Living Well—Even When All Hell Breaks Loose,” a 178-page prescription for how to derive joy and purpose from doing your part to make the world better.
As a career United Nations civil servant, Turner has worked with people in some of the world’s most troubled regions. How have Haitians endured the woes that have beset them since they were taken forcibly from Africa to the Caribbean? Poze, or poo-zay as it is pronounced in the slow and easy cadence consistent with the word’s meaning: to calm down, assess a situation, and consider what can be done to make it better. “Haitians, perhaps more than most people on our planet, have to bring an almost unimaginable level of creativity to the daily challenge of surviving and finding something to smile about,” Turner writes.
In Wonder Words, Turner invites us to view challenges as opportunities to say “Alhamdulillah” (al-ham-du-lil-lah), an Arabic prayer that can acknowledge how some good must eventually flow from any event that was the will of Allah.
She argues that “the words we use – the ones we say to ourselves and to each other – can rewire our brains, shape our lives, and change the world.”
As a global synonym for hope Turner chooses Tinogona, as the Shona people of Zimbabwe express their belief that nothing is unachievable. “Human progress,” writes Turner, “is a story of the realization of the crazy ideas of people who believed they could, and you can be one of them.”
Turner suggests that skeptics and pessimists banish their disbelief by saying Abracadabra, a Hebrew word that means “I create as I speak.” She argues that “the words we use – the ones we say to ourselves and to each other – can rewire our brains, shape our lives, and change the world.”
But not at the snap of a finger. Change often takes years of Tu’u-lun or working together in the Tetun language of East Timor. “Darwin was wrong,” Turner writes. “Collaboration, not competition is the driving force of human evolution, and our current rate of progress is, as ever, a function of our level of collaboration.”
To learn patience Turner advises change-seekers to cultivate Gozar, the Latin American Spanish word to describe work that feels so delightful that we lose track of time. She suggests exercising our altruistic impulses by practicing Mudita, the Sanskrit verb for taking vicarious pleasure in the happiness of others. “Mudita is the reason volunteers talk with conviction about how ‘they gave me more than I gave them’,” she writes.
Wonder Words taught me that I’d been a lifelong practitioner of Blether, the Scottish word for engaging in casual conversation driven by curiosity and a genuine interest in others. Turner, a citizen of the world by vocation but a Scot by upbringing, has a penchant for blethering herself as we discovered to our mutual delight when a chance encounter nearly a decade ago led her to share the vision that the book articulates.
Wonder Word’s acknowledgments include me among the confidants who encouraged her to finish the book by seizing the most powerful of the nine words – Parole, which might translate as the French for self-empowerment. “La parole (is) a reminder of the power you possess somewhere around your throat area,” Turner writes. “(It) is an invitation for you to speak up, no matter what accent you have or what language you use. Speak up, knowing that what you have to say, how you see things, and what you want is a jewel of inestimable value. As indeed, are you.”
9 Wonder Words: A Language for Living Well—Even When All Hell Breaks Loose, was reissued on November 23rd, 2022, under ISBN 1734840080.
Wor(l)d: One Woman’s Discovery of the Power of Words, was originally published on December 4th, 2021, under ISBN 1734840013.
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