Isn’t it irenic? It’s time to bring back beautiful words we have lost
I was trying to make a small impression on my pile of unread editions of the London Review of Books at the weekend. I’ve been stuck at base camp for a while now. I struggle for the time and/or IQ necessary to appreciate much of the content, but there’s always something brilliant in there for me. This is usually a fascinating biography of someone I’ve never heard of, generally presented in the shape of a review of a biography; a review written by someone who plainly feels they know the subject better than the biographer.
On this occasion, the discovery of just one word, in a piece by Rosemary Hill, was worth the cover price. She uses the word “irenic” to describe the son of John Lewis, the original draper. Irenic? I’d emphatically never come across this word before. This is a shame because it describes something beautiful. As I’m sure Guardian readers will know, it means, according to Chambers, “tending to create peace”; my Concise Oxford English Dictionary has it as “aiming or aimed at peace”. Either way, sweet.
The lexicographer and etymologist Susie Dent tells me it comes from Eirene, the Greek goddess of peace, who also gives us the name Irene. What a pity, then, that you don’t hear of many Irenes these days. I’m sure my nan knew an Irene, but that’s about it in my life. I searched a list of 50 famous Irenes and hadn’t heard of any of them. However, I’m so glad I looked, because I came across the quite fabulously named actor and director Irene Miracle.
It says something bad about us that this beautiful word, irenic, has fallen out of use, as has its only real synonym, pacific. As Dent points out in her book Word Perfect, negative words are more likely to flourish than positive ones. She reminds me that there is no synonym for love, yet we have endless choices for hate, and that once we could be ruly, couth, wieldy, pecunious, mayed, ept, gruntled and so on, but now we can only be their opposites.
Bring back irenic, I say. Get the word out to Alanis Morissette; she can redeem herself with this idea in song. And as for Irene Miracle, it turns out she won a Golden Globe for her role in Midnight Express, so that’s what I’ll be watching this evening.