Desiderata is a plural noun, with the singular form desideratum, meaning “things wanted or needed”: “Happily-ever-after” and “eternal love” appear to be the desiderata of the current generation to whom “fat chance” say those of us who are older, wiser and more curmudgeonly.
For many, the word desiderata most often evokes the famous poem by Max Ehrmann, written in 1927 and often referred to simply as Desiderata, without attribution or quotation marks. The poem begins with oft-quoted the lines, “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, / and remember what peace there may be in silence.”
Though the poem has achieved a mythic quality and a near-spiritual significance for some, it was not well known until the 1970s when it was made into hugely popular posters and sound recordings. Even Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek fame included a spoken-word rendition of Desiderata on his album Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock’s Music from Outer Space in the track “Spock Thoughts.”
Listen to the track:
The word can be traced back to the 19th century, when it became fashionable for English-speakers to use little-known Latin words in place of shorter, more common Anglo-Saxon terms. Latin words were thought to be more elegant and more precise than their English counterparts, and the users of these words no doubt hoped to be seen as more intellectual and sophisticated. Desiderata gained popularity in the early 1800s as part of this trend, which had its many critics. In 1864, Henry Alford wrote that English “is undergoing a sad and rapid process of deterioration. Its fine manly Saxon is getting diluted into long Latin words not carrying half the meaning.” Many, like Alford, considered Latinate words pretentious, and advocated for what they considered a purer form of English.
Spanish and French also absorbed desiderata from Latin, and the word continues to have the same meaning in both languages today.
Some writers misuse desiderata as a singular noun. The correct singular form is desideratum.
Desiderata, Madder Mortem, CD (2006).
“Desiderata,” The Poems of Max Ehrmann, Max Ehrmann (1927). The text was largely unknown in the author’s lifetime. After its use in a devotional, it was turned into a hugely popular poster.
The Queen’s English: stray notes on speaking and spelling, by Henry Alford. A. Strahan, 1864
English in nineteenth-century England: an introduction, by Manfred Görlach, 1999
“When you arrive at Savannah, I have many desiderata, as usual.”
—Henry Muhlenberg, Reliquiae Baldwinianae: selections from the correspondence of the late William Baldwin (1843)
“When posters of the poem ‘Desiderata’ adorned dormitory walls in the 70s, an entire column was devoted to clearing up its clouded origins.”
—Reference and Adult Services Division of the American Library Association, RQ, Vol 25 (1986)
Back to Top