In Search of Obscure Words for Even Rarer Feelings
The More Emotions We Can Name, The Better Off We'll Be
Bottling it Up
The Victorian critic John Ruskin contemplated the clouds every morning. He sketched their purple wisps and scarlet streaks. He noted how some processed lazily and others seemed purposeful. In his diary, he wrote proudly that he “bottled skies” as carefully as his father had bottled sherries, and set about arranging his observations according to new meteorological categories. Eventually, he gave up defeated. Any topology of the clouds, he was forced to admit, would always be “an arrangement more of convenience than true description.”
Trying to name and categorize our emotions can feel just as impossible. Could you say, precisely, what you’re feeling right now? Is your stomach tight and knotted at the thought of the surprise you’re planning tonight? Is there an echo of sadness about that letter you received this morning? Are you feeling smug or resentful, gleeful or suspicious—or all of these at once?
Some emotions, it’s true, really do wash the world in a single color, like the terror felt as the car skids. But many disappear before we’ve had a chance to spot them, like the nostalgic twinge that makes you choose a familiar brand in the supermarket. And there are others, too, which are so peculiar we don’t even have a name for them.
Perhaps you’ve experienced the feeling the French sociologist Roger Caillois called “ilinx”—an elated disorientation caused by random acts of destruction, such as kicking over the office recycling bin.
Maybe you are familiar with Hygge (the Danish word for feeling snug and cosy inside with friends when it’s cold outside). Or worry about your ambiguphobia (a horror of being misunderstood that leads to excessive clarification and re-clarification). Maybe you even have a touch of basorexia—a sudden desire to kiss someone.
Words for hidden feelings
Over the last few years I’ve hunted down words for emotions I didn’t even know I had. I took them home. I tried to describe and categorize them. Along with exasperating everyone I know with endless questions, one of the effects of this process is that I’ve come to appreciate some of the more peculiar connections between the words we use to talk about feelings, and the emotions we actually feel.
It’s a long-held belief among therapists that learning to name our emotions can ultimately make them less volatile and uncomfortable.
But less spoken about is the other side of this coin: that learning new words for emotions can also bring feelings to life. Discover the definition of a new emotion, and you’ll almost certainly find yourself re-organizing your inner world, seeing vague or amorphous sensations as concrete instances of a recognizable category of experience. It wasn’t until I learnt the Japanese word Amae, which roughly translates as “the pleasure of surrendering to another in perfect safety,” that I started to experience this feeling in my own life on a regular basis—and discovered how nervous it made me feel.
In a report published in 2014 in the journal of the American Psychological Association, Jordi Quoidbach and five co-authors discussed the positive affects of expanding our emotional vocabulary, and in turn, our repertoire of feelings.
Their report argued that “emodiversity”—having a “variety and relative abundance of the emotions”—may be a long-term predictor of emotional and physical health.
Their longitudinal study looked at the emotional self-reports of more than 37,000 people. They found that those who selected a greater range of words from a list to describe how they felt that day also experienced fewer incidents of diagnosed depression and visited the doctors less often.
More evidence is needed to fully establish the connection. But after decades of research linking happiness and good health, this report is important. So-called “negative” states like boredom, anger, vengefulness or frustration that are so often framed as “bad for us,” may be our best allies. And learning how to describe them in more detail—or as the report puts it learning “to finally differentiate the nuances between different emotional states”—could be a potent weapon.
Why might this be? One explanation is that people who are able to describe the nuances of everyday ups and downs may be more self-aware—a quality often linked to wellbeing.
Another explanation comes from ideas about biodiversity. Most successful ecosystems contain diverse organisms. They are resilient because a single predator or disease can’t wipe them out entirely. Learning to experience a range of emotions might likewise promote emotional resilience by ensuring long-term stress or sadness can’t dominate altogether.
One further explanation is connected to the phenomenon called “hedonic adaptation.” You’re probably familiar with it: a shiny new thing or hobby gives great pleasure, but then you grow used to it, and it satisfies less. Similarly, even if you did manage to attain long-term happiness, you’d probably tire of it quickly. The occasional flash of fury or Schadenfreude will help you enjoy the good feelings when they arrive too.
For Quoidbach and his co-authors, the secret to living an emodiverse life is developing a rich emotional vocabulary. 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.
Just watch out for basorexia.
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, a: 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 call 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.