Personal Health

Exploring Those Confusing Feelings You Have, Yet Can't Name

Odd emotions have names—just maybe not in English.

What do you call that urge you've sometimes had "to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute?” Filipinos call this gigil. What do you call that feeling you get when someone does you a favor you really didn’t want them to do and you have to thank them for it? In Japanese, the word is arigata-meiwaku. In English, our library of adjectives for often ineffable emotions can feel limited. The inability to verbally categorize our feelings can leave us overwhelmed and frustrated.

A cover story in the latest issue of Psychology Today calls the random and confusing human experiences we often can’t name, "Odd Emotions.” As the article’s author, Rebecca Webber, wrote, “unusual emotions routinely swirl within us, and they aren't easily named. But it may be useful to stop, examine them, and try to put them into words.”

Webber writes that most of our strangest emotions fit into the following broad categories of experience: “Encounters With Nature,” “Encounters With Time,” “Encounters With Other People,” and “Encounters With Ourselves.”

Under “Encounters With Other People,” she describes the origin of the German term schadenfreude, “which describes the pleasure we may derive from someone else's pain.” But even a term as specific as schadenfreud isn’t always an adequate descriptor, Webber notes. For example, Webber spoke with Joanne Cleaver, 57, of Manistee, Michigan who described the emotion of when someone “finally comes around to your point of view or is served a very cold helping of karma, but sadly, you've matured past the point of really caring anymore." 

Mapping Our Emotional Language Gap

While the English language offers more than 3,000 words to describe our emotions, rarely do any of us use more than a few blanket terms to say how we feel (sad, angry, frustrated, happy, stressed, relaxed, and so on). Even if we did, chances are we’d come up short when attempting to describe “that special look shared between two people, when both are wishing that the other would do something that they both want, but neither want to do” (mamihlapinatapai” in the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego) or that “euphoria you experience when you are first falling in love” (forelsket" in Norwegian).

Pei-Ying Lin turned the lack of emotional descriptors English-speakers have at hand into a design project, while studying at London's Royal College of Art in 2013. Lin created a detailed infographic of the relationship between English descriptions and those in other languages using a linguistics model to map out the various emotions. She told Popular Science at the time that she gathered a “list of ‘unspeakable’ English words from colleagues at her school.

The finished infographic is below, and you can view the full-sized infographic here.

About a decade ago, artist John Koenig (who's also mentioned in Webber’s piece), created a poetic online project called the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, where he provides names and descriptions for those nameless sentiments we’ve all felt.

On Koenig’s site you’ll find a name for the perverse feeling of “lachesism: n. the desire to be struck by disaster—to survive a plane crash, to lose everything in a fire, to plunge over a waterfall—which would put a kink in the smooth arc of your life, and forge it into something hardened and flexible and sharp, not just a stiff prefabricated beam that barely covers the gap between one end of your life and the other.”

He also names that nagging awareness of “how little of the world you’ll experience” (onism); your “moment of awareness that someone you’ve known for years still has a private and mysterious inner life (gnossienne); and the “ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye” (opia). There are hundreds more.

My partner, who is a filmmaker, has definitely shared with me (without knowing the word for it) the feeling of vemödalen, or “the frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist," as defined by Obscure Sorrows.

Koenig told Webber that his goal is to remind people that they’re not alone in what they’re feeling, no matter how seemingly odd it may feel.

"Whatever you're feeling right now has been felt by someone else out there,” he said.

April M. Short is a yoga teacher and writer who previously worked as AlterNet's drugs and health editor. She currently works part-time for AlterNet, and freelances for a number of publications nationwide. She worked as story/line-producer for Psychedelic Science 2017 — Short Form Documentary.

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