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Word of the Week: ‘becoming’

 

In a new weekly feature, our wordsmiths take a closer look at the words and phrases that are trending online and in the media. This week: ‘becoming’.

‘Becoming’, a word endowed with dual meaning, has suddenly become (apologies) very  common in online news searches thanks to the launch of former First Lady Michelle Obama’s memoir – as evidenced by a recent spike in Google News searches:

Becoming graph.png
 

It’s perhaps unusual to see a present participle take a starring role as the title of a memoir – seemingly begging the question, in this case, “becoming what?”. (And indeed in some countries, the publishers have plumped for a more prosaic translation: for instance the Dutch version of the book is marketed as ‘Mijn Verhaal’, or ‘My Story’.)

But if anyone can pull it off, Michelle Obama can…and of course we know when she speaks of ‘becoming’, she means it in the sense of what a thousand reality TV stars have referred to as ‘my journey’. You know, growth in the spiritual sense. (Though of course MO has a lot more to say, and a hell of a lot more worth listening to, than any wannabe sleb.)

Or maybe she’s just referencing Aristotle: for the ancient philosopher, ‘becoming’ referred to change involving the movement from a ‘lower level of potentiality, to the higher level of actuality’.

‘Becoming’ as an adjective, can also, rather quaintly, be used to describe the attractive appearance – or behaviour – of a person or thing. First recorded in 1555, no BBC period drama would be complete without the phrase “he/she/it is most becoming” being uttered 20 times.

Becoming me, becoming us, becoming more

Considering her status as one of the most iconic, charismatic and high-achieving women of our era, Michelle Obama can rightly lay claim to owning either sense of the word. For black women in particular, her exploration of the difficulty of actively ‘becoming’ oneself in a majority white culture – rather than being spoken for or defined by others – will have particular meaning. Michelle’s achievement then, of ‘becoming’ in an environment that notoriously makes that difficult for black women, is even more resonant.

 If the search engine surge is anything to go by, the world is keen to discover what ‘higher level of actuality’ the first lady is destined to achieve – though as she reflects herself in the final lines of her memoir – “it’s not about where you get yourself in the end”. Despite that assertion, the First Lady’s seemingly endless quest for self-fulfilment – traceable in the memoir’s chapter headings, ‘Becoming Me’, ‘Becoming Us’ and, finally, ‘Becoming More’ – does at least come to an identifiable linguistic end. The final word of the memoir finally sees her “become”. Which begs the question, what will she call the sequel?

You can hear Michelle Obama read from her memoir on BBC Radio 4 here.