Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Tiffany Watt Smith: In Search of Obscure Words for Even Rarer Feelings

Learning new words for feelings can help us sort out our shifting, melting emotional skies and attend to the subtle forms and flavors of our experiences. And if you happen upon an emotion you’ve never even heard of? Well, you might just notice it starts making an appearance in your life too.

Awumbuk: There is an emptiness after visitors depart. The walls echo. The space which felt so cramped while they were here now seems weirdly large. Sometimes everything seems a bit pointless. The indigenous Baining people who live in the mountains of Papua New Guinea are so familiar with this experience that they name it awumbuk. They believe departing visitors shed a kind of heaviness when they leave, so as to travel lightly. This oppressive mist hovers for three days, leaving everyone feeling distracted and apathetic. To counter it, the Baining fill a bowl with water and leave it overnight to absorb the festering air. The next day, the family rises very early and ceremonially flings the water into the trees, whereupon ordinary life resumes.

L’appel du vide: Walking along a high cliff path, you are gripped by a terrifying urge to leap. As an express train hurtles into view, you itch to fling yourself in front of it. People talk of a fear of heights, but in truth anxieties about precipices are often less to do with falling than with the horrifying compulsion to jump. The French have a name for this unnerving impulse: l’appel du vide, “the call of the void.” As Jean-Paul Sartre recognized, l’appel du vide creates the shaky sensation that even our own instincts are not always to be trusted.

Dolce far niente: The pleasure of doing nothing.

Formal feeling: Sometimes life’s most painful experiences can leave us feeling eerily cold and a little mechanical. Emily Dickinson described it as “a formal feeling.” The heart seems stiff and detached, our emotions wary and ceremonious. “This is the Hour of Lead,” wrote Dickinson. “First–Chill–then Stupor–then the letting go–.”

Greng Jai: In Thailand, greng jai (pronounced: kreng jai) is the feeling of being reluctant to accept another’s offer of help because of the bother it would cause them.

Hiraeth: The Welsh word hiraeth (pronounced hir-aeth, with a rolled ‘r’) describes a deeply felt connection with one’s homeland, casting its woods and hills in an almost magical glow. But hiraeth is not a feeling of coziness or comfort. It is rather a yearning feeling, flecked with suspense, as if something is about to be lost and never recovered. Perhaps it is Wales’ long history of English occupation which has given rise to this combination of a love for home and a sense of its vulnerability. Today, hiraeth is most commonly associated with émigrés, experienced most sharply on returning home—and knowing the time to leave again will come all too soon.

Homefulness: In July 1841, the poet John Clare escaped from High Beech asylum in Epping Forest to get home to his beloved Mary Joyce. For three and a half days he walked with broken shoes, sleeping in porches and eating grass from the roadside. He recalled that, exhausted and foot-foundered, he reached the point where the road forks to Peterborough and was suddenly restored: “I felt myself in home’s way.” The writer Iain Sinclair, who retraced Clare’s journey, used the little-known word “homefulness” to describe Clare’s feeling at this point. He became full with the feeling of home.

Iktsuarpok: When visitors are due to arrive, a fidgety feeling sprouts up. We might keep glancing out of the window, or pause mid-sentence, thinking we’ve heard the sound of a car. Among the Inuit, this antsy anticipation, causing them to scan the frozen Arctic tundra for approaching sledges, is called iktsuarpok (pronounced: eet-so-ahr-pohk).

Liget: It’s the fire in the chili and the rush in the rapids. It makes tempers fly and drives people to work harder. Among the Ilongot, a tribe of around 3,500 headhunters living in the gloomy jungles of Nueva Vizcaya in the Philippines, liget is the name given to an angry energy which fuels human and non-humans alike. Anger is sometimes seen as a negative emotion, but for Ilongot, liget speaks above all of optimism and vitality. It is certainly capable of stirring up pointless arguments and violent outbursts. But it also excites and motivates, making people plant more seeds than their neighbors, or stay out hunting for longer. “If it were not for liget,” one Ilongot told the anthropologist Michelle Rosaldo, “we’d have no life, we’d never work.”

Matutolypea: The alarm clock trills. The dawn slips in through the curtains. And we awake, overcome with misery and bad temper. Your grandmother might know it as “getting out of bed on the wrong side.” But it is, in fact, the much more important-sounding matutolypea (pronounced: mah-tu-toh-leh-pee-a). No one quite knows when the word was invented or by whom, but it comes from a combination of the name of the Roman goddess of the dawn, Mater Matuta, and the Greek word for dejection, lype, to give us the dignity of “morning sorrow.”

Mono no aware: Murasaki Shikibu, a poet and lady-in-waiting in 12th-century Japan, crafted what is often described today as the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji. Set in the imperial court, it recounts the political intrigues and love affairs of an emperor’s illegitimate son. The book is infused with a quiet feeling for life’s transience, a sensitivity to the beauty of decay and the fading of all living and inanimate things. To read it is to become well acquainted with the feeling the Japanese call mono no aware (pronounced: moh-noh noh ah-wah-ray). Literally translated as the pathos (aware) of things (mono), it is often described as a kind of a sigh for the impermanence of life.

Mudita: For Gautama Buddha who lived in the fifth or sixth century BCE, joy was not a scarce resource to be competed over. He saw it as boundless, and contagious, and used the word mudita (pronounced moo-dee-ta) to capture an experience of joy felt on hearing of someone else’s good fortune.

Nakhes: Perhaps your youngest has just crawled for the first time, or your oldest has cooked a quiche. Seeing a child achieve something—anything!—can make the heart feel like it’s about to burst with joy. In Yiddish there’s a special word for this feeling: nakhes (pronounced: na-khez, with the kh pronounced like the ch in loch). It makes parents kvell (crow with delight) over even the littlest achievements of their squirming offspring, binding the generations together in a shared feeling of success.

Pronoia: A strange, creeping feeling that everyone’s out to help you.

Ruinenlust: Feeling irresistibly drawn to crumbling buildings and abandoned places.

Toska: So much of our emotional life is linked to the landscape. The craggy wilderness of the mountains gave the Romantics their love of loneliness and terror. In Russia, the emotion toska (pronounced: tas-ka) is said to bellow in from Europe’s Great Plains, which sweep from the Pyrenees to the Ural mountains, and bring a maddening feeling of “unsatisfiedness,” an insatiable searching. For Vladimir Nabokov, toska was a distinctly Russian emotion, “a dull ache” of the soul, “a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness.”

Umpty: Perkin Flump is in a very bad mood. (The Flumps was a 1970s children’s cartoon presenting the home life of a family of round furry creatures who lived in northern England.) The water is too cold. The floor is too bumpy. His porridge is too lumpy and too sticky. “I feel umpty” he tells his mother. “What’s umpty?” she asks. “It’s a too-much morning” he explains and stomps off to be on his own. Umpty: a feeling of everything being “too much” and all in the wrong way.

It’s only known cure: laughter.

Copyright 2016 Tiffany Watt Smith. A longer version of this essay appears in LitPub.

Tiffany Watt Smith is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. Her latest book, The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty — 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel, is available from Little, Brown.


One comment on “Tiffany Watt Smith: In Search of Obscure Words for Even Rarer Feelings

  1. Carole Brooks Platt
    July 2, 2016

    That was a really fun read. I would say the word out loud then check my pronunciation and was always right!

    Liked by 1 person

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