Few of us use all — or even most — of the 3,000 English-language words available to us for describing our emotions, but even if we did, most of us would still experience feelings for which there are, apparently, no words. In some cases, though, words do exist to describe those nameless emotions. These words shape the culture, the interaction between people on an every day basis. And they don’t exist in English.
Design student Pei-Ying Lin solicited the list of “unspeakable” words from colleagues at London’s Royal College of Art, and found that their definitions in English usually came down to something like, “it is a kind of (emotion A), close to (emotion B), and somehow between (emotion C) and (emotion D).”
Next, to visualize the relationship between the foreign emotion-words and English ones, Lin used a linguistics model to map out five basic emotions (large yellow circles), along with several descriptive words related to each (smaller green circles). Finally, she used her sources’ descriptions to place the new/foreign words on an English map.
1. Age-otori (Japanese): To look worse after a haircut
2. Arigata-meiwaku (Japanese): An act someone does for you that you didn’t want to have them do and tried to avoid having them do, but they went ahead anyway, determined to do you a favor, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, yet in the end social conventions required you to express gratitude
3. Backpfeifengesicht (German): A face badly in need of a fist
4. Bakku-shan (Japanese): A beautiful girl… as long as she’s being viewed from behind
5. Desenrascanço (Portuguese): “to disentangle” yourself out of a bad situation (To MacGyver it)
6. Duende (Spanish): a climactic show of spirit in a performance or work of art, which might be fulfilled in flamenco dancing, or bull-fighting, etc.
7. Forelsket (Norwegian): The euphoria you experience when you are first falling in love
8. Gigil (pronounced Gheegle; Filipino): The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute
9. Guanxi (Mandarin): in traditional Chinese society, you would build up good guanxi by giving gifts to people, taking them to dinner, or doing them a favor, but you can also use up your gianxi by asking for a favor to be repaid
10. Ilunga (Tshiluba, Congo): A person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time
11. L’esprit de l’escalier (French): usually translated as “staircase wit,” is the act of thinking of a clever comeback when it is too late to deliver it
12. Litost (Czech): a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery
13. Mamihlapinatapai (Yaghan): A look between two people that suggests an unspoken, shared desire
14. Manja (Malay): “to pamper”, it describes gooey, childlike and coquettish behavior by women designed to elicit sympathy or pampering by men. “His girlfriend is a damn manja. Hearing her speak can cause diabetes.”
15. Meraki (pronounced may-rah-kee; Greek): Doing something with soul, creativity, or love. It’s when you put something of yourself into what you’re doing
16. Nunchi (Korean): the subtle art of listening and gauging another’s mood. In Western culture, nunchi could be described as the concept of emotional intelligence. Knowing what to say or do, or what not to say or do, in a given situation. A socially clumsy person can be described as ‘nunchi eoptta’, meaning “absent of nunchi”
17. Pena ajena (Mexican Spanish): The embarrassment you feel watching someone else’s humiliation
18. Pochemuchka (Russian): a person who asks a lot of questions
19. Schadenfreude (German): the pleasure derived from someone else’s pain
20. Sgriob (Gaelic): The itchiness that overcomes the upper lip just before taking a sip of whisky
21. Taarradhin (Arabic): implies a happy solution for everyone, or “I win. You win.” It’s a way of reconciling without anyone losing face. Arabic has no word for “compromise,” in the sense of reaching an arrangement via struggle and disagreement
22. Tatemae and Honne (Japanese): What you pretend to believe and what you actually believe, respectively
23. Tingo (Pascuense language of Easter Island): to borrow objects one by one from a neighbor’s house until there is nothing left
24. Waldeinsamkeit (German): The feeling of being alone in the woods
25. Yoko meshi (Japanese): literally ‘a meal eaten sideways,’ referring to the peculiar stress induced by speaking a foreign language.
Lin also mapped five emotions that are unique to the computer/internet age, and also — so far, at least — unnamed in English.
1. A vague and gnawing pang of anxiety centered around an IM window that has lulled: During this time an individual feels unsure whether they have offended the IM recipient, committed a breach of IM etiquette, or have otherwise spoilt the presentation of themselves carefully crafted thus far thanks to the miracles of the textual medium. The individual must be at least vaguely aware that they are being vaguely paranoid, and must tell themselves things like ‘he probably just stepped away from the keyboard’ or ‘I know she is at work right now so perhaps she has stopped replying because she is busy.’
This sentiment of anxiety must surface only after an extremely brief lapse in the pace of the conversation [range of ~30 seconds to 1 minute], and the individual must tell themselves things like ‘it has only been like a minute, don’t worry.’ The individual may mull a mental history of their prior IM conversations with the subject and with others in an attempt to gauge whether the lull is ‘normal’, or to extrapolate what the lull might indicate about the subject’s sentiment toward them. The individual may experience elevated heart rate and depersonalization, and while staring at the screen with an unfocused expression, have catastrophic thoughts about their romantic history, their ability to be liked by others in the future or their key flaws.
2. A sudden and irrational rage in response to reading an ‘@-reply’ on Twitter: The reply is not especially insulting and might be simply a little bit facile, or flippant, or even overly friendly. It is essential that the substance of the ‘trigger’ is not actually upsetting or offensive in any comprehensible way; for example, a total stranger with a particularly goofy Twitter ‘avatar’ might tweet at an individual ‘hope you are staying safe in the snow, [name!] ;)’ in a totally reasonable and friendly fashion and the recipient instead experiences a sudden flash of negative sentiment like ‘who is this person and what makes someone randomly wish for the safety of a stranger, they are probably a loser, I am offended by the attention of this obsequious weirdo.’
Or the individual might Tweet seeking recommendations for what to watch on Hulu and receive a reply that says ‘have you seen [x]’ where ‘x’ is something completely obvious that everyone has seen, and the individual experiences the strong urge to reply with something virulent or to tweet ‘WHY ARE IDIOTS FOLLOWING ME WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE.’ Throughout the immediate rush of irrational hair-trigger irritation the individual is vaguely aware that their reaction is completely inappropriate for the situation of being addressed in a less than desirable way by strangers on the internet. In advanced cases the person tweets something stark or vicious about the state of society or about the internet and deletes it ~15-30 seconds later after realizing it is exceptionally unwarranted.
3. The state of being ‘installed’ at a computer or laptop for an extended period of time without purpose, characterized by a blurry, formless anxiety undercut with something hard like desperation: During this time the individual will have several windows open, generally several browser ‘tabs,’ a Microsoft Word document in some state of incompletion, the individual’s own Facebook page as well as that of another randomly-selected individual who may or may not be on the ‘friends’ list, 2-5 Gchat conversations that are no longer immediately active, possibly iTunes and a ‘client’ for Twitter. The individual will switch between the open applications/tabs in a fashion that appears organized but is functionally aimless, will return to reading some kind of ‘blog post’ in one browser tab and become distracted at the third paragraph for the third time before switching to the Gmail inbox and refreshing it again.
The behavior equates to mindlessly refreshing and ‘lozenging’ the same sources of information repeatedly. While performing this behavior the individual feels a sense of numb depersonalization, being calmly and pragmatically aware that they have no identifiable need to be at the computer nor are they gleaning any practical use from it at that moment, and the individual may feel vaguely uncomfortable or ashamed about this awareness in concert with the fact that they continue to perform the idle ‘refreshing’ behavior. They may feel increasingly anxious and needful, similar to the sensation of having an itch that needs scratching or a thirst that needs quenching, all while feeling as though they are calm or slightly bored.
4. The car collision of appetite and discomfort one feels simultaneously when using the internet to seek and consume images or information that may be considered unseemly or inappropriate: The individual might be viewing a YouTube video of an extremely uncool musical performance, an awkwardly poor ‘stand-up’ performance by a friend or something else they clicked on to be polite during an IM conversation to which the individual would have been unlikely to have navigated on his or her own. Despite the fact that the individual is alone, possibly wearing headphones, or otherwise in a state of adequate privacy, the individual still feels slightly self-conscious in a way that is only possible in the silent digital echo chamber of the internet, under the internet’s populist eye. The individual is unlikely to be able to make more than a cursory assessment of the offending media, and may experience the sensation of ‘suffering through’ it despite the fact that the individual chose, or believes they chose, to view it.
In advanced cases, however, the individual continues to seek out contact with the offending media and offshoots or evolutions thereupon, such as finding a group of Tumblr users who seem insane and flipping rapidly through the Tumblrs while thinking ‘who the fuck would make this kind of Tumblr, how can there be so many people doing this,’ or finding an exceptionally boring and obnoxious Formspring user and thinking ‘god what a terrible person’ while reading ~6 pages of questions they answered. It is analogous to smoking a cigarette while thinking ‘ugh, smoking is slowly causing cancer inside me’ and finishing the cigarette, except for being expanded to ‘emotional landscape’ level and being much more fraught, somehow. The individual may experience a burning sensation or redness in the face or ears.
5. The sense of fatigue and disconnect one experiences after emitting a massive stream of content only to hit some kind of ‘wall’ and forget and/or abandon the entire thing: Most commonly encountered when a person starts to type a comment on a website, such as a carefully-considered response to a news article, generally for the purpose of joining a discussion taking place in a comments section, although this might apply to a blog post or Facebook ‘note’ if the individual is in the habit of generating those on at least a semi-regular basis. The person starts out with a tangible urge to produce a written argument and writes with intensity and immediacy until they notice they have written some 2-4 paragraphs, at which point begin feeling self-conscious about what they have written and wonder whether the length of their comment is appropriate.
The individual begins editing it to feel more concise and effective, begins adding some details and removing others, until an unacceptable length of time passes and the individual feels increasingly ‘fuzzy’ about whatever it was they were writing. They may feel as though the thread of their idea has ‘gotten away from them’ or that each paragraph of the increasingly unruly block of text is weaker than the one that preceded it. The need to say something has lapsed and leaves a dim, fatigued sensation in its place. In advanced cases, a sensation approximating ‘headache’ but not as tangible nor identifiable as ‘headache’ sets in.
The individual leaves their unfinished content in the ‘box,’ and becomes hyper-aware of its transient nature while navigating aimlessly to other tabs. The individual returns to the in-progress content as if to assure it still exists. The individual reads the content through for perhaps the tenth time in total and then presses ‘ctrl-a’ and ‘backspace’ or ‘delete’ and feels a simultaneous rush of relief and impotence when the content disappears. The person feels decimated, depersonalized and powerless while sitting still for a handful of seconds and may feel depressed for several minutes thereafter.
The Untranslatable Words Database, another project by Lin, is a collection of videos which people were asked to explain the untranslatable words in their native language with that lanaguage to the imaginary audience who doesn’t understand the language. It is an attempt to capture the essense of the emotion-related words in different languages through voice, body language, and facial expressions.
The videos are filled with remarks like, “well, it’s sort of like…,” and “I can’t really describe it exactly, but…,” and “I’m not really sure how to put it in English, but…” – and these aren’t folk who have trouble with English. It becomes apparent that, although they have a clear impression of the emotion, and although they’re fluent in English, they can’t seem to bring those two together. They just can’t quite get the emotion in question to fit in the conceptual framework of English vocabulary.
Emotional concepts have a unique place in the pantheon of language, because they are ideas we attach to our inner – and amorphous – sensations of feeling. Our emotional words are the concepts we use to recognize and create distinctions within the sensational experience of being a person.
The words we have at our disposal literally shape how we think about our lives. The floating, fluid, fuzzy sensations we actually feel in our bodies – the warm and tickled tummies, the cold and sweaty hands, the hot and prickly faces – those can be anything. They’re always all over the place. But the emotional concepts we attach to them – excitement, nervousness, shame – those are defined by our languages.
* This post was an amalgamation of texts and images taken from these websites: Waistcoat and Watch, Popsci, So Bad So Good, Thought Catalog, peilingyyin.net
p.s. Hey. Some time ago a kind reader of my blog back when it was known as The Weaklings made the lovely post you see above. Google murdered that blog, as you know, murdering Caitlin’s post in the process. Today I restore her thing. It’s excellent. Read it please. I’m away in Torino for two showings of ‘Permanent Green Light’. See you on Thursday.