help and contribute

Image: Grossgasteiger


What lexical choices can tell us

Em interview granted by the current first lady – Rosângela Lula da Silva, Janja – to journalist Natuza Nery, from Globo News, on January 5th, there were quite interesting comments about the verbs “contribute” and “help”.

At one point, the sociologist First Lady talks about her institutional role in government and how she would like to be remembered. At that moment, there is the following dialogue with the interviewer: “Janja: (…) a woman who was present beside the president, you know?, who walked with him, walked with him these four years, you know? , but that he was there enjoying this unique moment that Brazil is going to live, right?, of reconstruction, that he was there “contributing”. I don't really like the term “help”; I like the term “contribute”. And, yesterday, I even said that to Marina, at her inauguration”.

“Nery: Was it? What did you say? Janja: It was, because the ceremonial staff read a text about her and said that she will “help”. I told her: Marina, you are not going to “help”; you will “contribute”. This is very important. And when she spoke, in her speech, right at the beginning, there was the word “help” and she changed it to “contribute” and looked at me. “I will 'contribute'”. I think this is very important; I think changing the language has strength; Words have that power. I think when you carry it, you use strong words, you give meaning to some things. So I want to “contribute” so that this Brazil of unity and reconstruction really happens in the coming years”.

Janja refers to the verbs “help” and “contribute”, showing a clear preference for the second of them, when referring to actions that he will probably take with the government. But does language contain this accuracy?


Language as a mirror of our thoughts

For a long time, it was believed that there would be a certain fairness between our thoughts and their respective linguistic expression. For example, the dialog Cratyl, by Plato, defends the possibility of having legitimacy in the names because these are, in his conception, inherent to nature. For the character Cratylus, there is a relationship between the name and the thing named, which can only be revealed through the name.

But does language work like that, with that iconic precision?

Recent studies show that language is strongly influenced by usage, shaped in everyday life and affected by the frequency of linguistic occurrences. Perhaps that is why Janja's conscious (or even unconscious!) insistence on creating something like a new linguistic culture that could contribute to that change in thinking. But what can these two verbs suggest?


Help and contribute, their meanings

These two verbs evoke semantic fields with some similarities. Using an analogical dictionary, the one that gathers words according to their affinity of ideas, we observe the following references: “ajudar” evokes assistance, benevolence, competition, usefulness and ease. Its etymology helps us to understand these notions.

To help comes from the composition of two Latin words: ad (“near”, “near”) and juvare (“be useful”, “help”, “bring relief and joy”). Thus, to help is to lend a hand, to get very close, to be really at the friend's side, “giving that strength”, as they say. Notice the semantics, let's say, more intimate, interpersonal, therefore private, typical of the semantic field where this word transits.

Contributing evokes cooperation, donation, expense (which may imply “contribution”), cause (as the idea of ​​contributing to a cause), competition (in the sense of “running together”), action and aid (trait attributed to both verbs). . Likewise, its etymology helps us to understand these notions.

Origin is Latin contribute, “add”, “add”, “add”, formed by com, "with more tribute, “assign”, “distribute”, “pay”.

While the preposition ad print the meaning of "beside", com imposes the indelible notion of “simultaneity”, of “joint participation”. Thus, Janja suggests the metaphor of a government that not only supports, with relative distance, but is experiencing every change in the lives of the people. Based on this metaphor, President Lula's government would not represent the image of a top-down power, but a power whose strength resides in the idea that “nobody lets go of anyone's hand”.

In this way, contributing evokes a distinct trait of “cooperation”, of “sum of efforts”, attributing, in the present case, a greater and more active solidarity of the person linked to the government. Is this the point that Janja intends to impress on her actions?


What did Janja mean by that verbal exchange?

When we start from the assumption that we are subject to a conventional linguistic system, common to all, the lexical choices we make, whether in the oral or written modality, maintain a close relationship with semantics. That is, when we use this or that word, we necessarily have to be aware of its most productive meaning for the context in which we are. Thus, language is a function that allows individuals to symbolize their thoughts and decode the thoughts of others.

That use of the verb “to help” raises some questions: why such a predilection? Why the preference for the figure of the collaborator over the government benefactor? What does this preference reveal about citizenship in our country?

We believe that there is no single answer to each of these questions and that answering them encompasses several factors, among which our model of colonization, slavery, coronelismo, cronyism, nepotism and the private and often personalistic appropriation of State, denying the very essence of politics – a word, incidentally, that comes from the Greek polis, “city”, understood not only as the physical space, but also and above all as the civil space inhabited and governed by all citizens.

Thus, “contribute” would be a word that would bring, as already mentioned, the idea of ​​solidarity, perhaps the most revolutionary political affection that can exist.

*Marcelo Modolo is professor of philology at the University of São Paulo (USP).

*Antonio Carlos Silva de Carvalho he holds a PhD from FFLCH-USP.

A first version of this article was published in Journal of USP, on February 13, 2023.

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