On the rare occasions when my wife says she doesn’t feel very well I ask her, in order to be of assistance, how specifically she doesn’t feel very well. She usually says she’s not too sure so I suggest that perhaps her ‘gronglins are condibulated…’ or that it’s a sad case of ‘koprinitis’ – something like that.
“How do you think up these words?” she asks.
“It’s second nature,” I say.
So, I ask myself where do I get this kind of response from? Simple! I’ve been ‘moodelling’ for sixty years on HGWells’ very special hero Mr Polly who, compensating for his meagre education by the voracious reading he organised for himself, had come across words that interested him but mangled them when he tried to use them to represent things he wanted to say: so, amongst other things he talked about ‘allitrition’s artful aid’, (alliteration’s artful aid) ‘exploratious menanderings’ (exploring that meanders all over the place) and ‘sesquippledan verboojuice’.
Sesquipedalian, a word you won’t hear everyday, refers to words that are a foot and a half long (Horace). Wells had his hero indulging in a ‘pleonasm’: he meant to say ‘sesquipedalian verbosity’ two words which pretty well mean the same thing.
My abiding interest in words and their relation to external ‘reality’ started when I had to study The History of Mr Polly in June 1954 for the Ordinary Level examination, as a contribution to the rubber-stamping of my educational progress through life. I learned that, when stuck for a word to express your meaning, you could simply make one up and, unless they were interested enough to ask a question, people would assume that you knew what you were talking about. Politicians, especially those of the Right and religious deviants do this all the time. One should be on constant guard against the ridiculous notion that they know what they’re talking about.
GIGurdjieff was the arch neologiser: my favourite invented word of his is sinkrpoosarams which means ‘belief in any old twaddle’; those who go along with Right Wing politicians and established religious maniacs suffer from sinkrpoosarams.
Two thoughts arise: firstly, all words are made up; secondly, the selection of made-up words we each individually choose to add to our repertoire provides a unique invented universe which we run the risk of proclaiming to be the only one of its kind. I later found, like a clap of thunder, that Benjamin Lee Whorf, developing the concept of linguistic relativity, had said something very similar, under the influence of his mentor Edward Sapir who held that ordinary language has a tendency to obscure, rather than facilitate, the mind to perceive and describe the world as it really is.
Thanks to Pat Mason!
I began to think about this once more when Whitehead’s ‘searchlight’ swung round to focus on the subject of words and their effect on what we like to think of as ‘meaning’. This was prompted by a series of interesting questions high-lighted by my friend Pat Mason who is writing a book.
Her questions went like this:-
• Does shame cause anxiety or does anxiety mean that people suffering with it are more susceptible to feeling shame?
• Is anxiety the root cause of feeling shame – or is intense shame the root cause of anxiety?
• Is low self esteem caused by shame or is it that if one has low self esteem, one is more susceptible to feeling shame?
• Is it a matter of Cause and Effect? Or are these things all part of the same continuum as in the Shame Circle?
I suggested that the key bit of this ‘Shame System’ might be ‘Meaning attribution through language’. Naming things lends a spurious kind of existence to whatever’s named.
Language being an intellectual invention – something totally separate from the way things are (in itself an invented concept!) – it is in business somehow to manage the meaning we ascribe to events which just keep happening in spite of the way we try to pin things down with words; things going on around us all the time have a nasty habit of escaping the net of words we try to weave around them; the words we succeed in imposing on ‘reality’ lead us to create a false notion of it but, of course, what would we do without words? Robert Graves’ lovely poem The Cool Web expresses this precisely:-
Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.
But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose’s cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.
There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.
But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.
I accept totally Benjamin Lee Whorf’s conclusion that the words we have at our disposal, or have come to deal in because they ‘work’ for us, create the universe we imagine we live in. If we’re diligent we inspect the universe we imagine we live in and adjust the words we use to what we find. Habitual satisfaction with the words we have at our disposal depends on our sense of ‘fit’: what seems to work for us in our context is reinforced over time and so we continue with the pattern of words that appears to represent our working ‘reality’, whether it’s anything like το ὀν (=being, the whole damned shoot) or not. If we’re not that diligent we stick with the old words and rest content to play the same old tracks.
One way of judging ‘appropriateness’ is to notice how worked up people get when faced with something that, through the use of words, causes cognitive dissonance for them: when one’s notion of ‘fit’ is disturbed by a bunch of words that suggest that there alternative ways of constructing a version of the universe one can go into a spectacular tizzy.
A mind more open to other possibilities might exclaim, “How interesting!” which, I suppose, is the emotionally intelligent response. It signifies a person who is capable of, and practised at, rising above identification with a particular point of view to achieve a meta-position, emotionless, except, perhaps, to indulge in a small excitement at the idea that one has escaped identification with a point of view – which would in itself signify a temporary lapse. One must never get too excited about anything!
All these words I’ve just dragged out of my limited repertoire are inventions that I’ve come to work with down the years. I could go back over them and fill in gaps until my sense of ‘fit’ became relatively certain. I notice all kinds of phrases and expressions that have come to sit comfortably in my minor intellectual prestidigitations.
We have at our disposal all manner of words we have invented as a way of representing what we call ‘emotions’. The concept of ‘emotion’ is, of course, in itself, invented, something plastered on top of the indubitable fact that we are driven by electro-chemical activity which is, to use GIGurdjieff’s splendid getout or coverall, a ‘something-or-other’ that keeps us going between birth & death. In order to manage the activity it’s come to be the case that we invent words to describe what’s happening and then imagine that the words are the things themselves. Philosophers have been trying to nail the truth of this for a long time; the nominalist/realist argy-bargy in the Middle Ages is a handy sort of example of the problem: ‘realists’ argued that words were the things themselves (we have a word ‘unicorn’ therefore there must be unicorns); to the contrary, ‘nominalists’ argued that words were just names or labels for things. The Tory Party is of the first faction – we have the word ‘austerity’ therefore, like a unicorn, it must exist; Corbyn is a nominalist – ‘austerity’ is a political invention, just a label for a way of demolishing the Welfare State. I happen to be a thoroughgoing Nominalist. I’m with Corbyn.
Take a random selection of invented ‘emotion’ words – shame, anger, happiness, horror, frustration, disgust, delight, anxiety, fear, loathing, love… and so on – simply names we have invented for all kinds of behaviours deriving from neuron and/or neurotransmitter activity. If it were possible to chart how one electro-chemical response to events merges, translates, stimulates, hi-jacks, relates to another it would constitute a more accurate way of saying what goes on in the human frame. It’s obviously true that we have ‘feelings’ but words that are supposed to depict emotions are rather dodgy items, or so it seems to me – need treating with extreme care.
I used to base a lot of my teaching on the fundamental idea that it’s confusing to talk about ‘memory’ (‘I have a bad memory’, for instance); it makes such a difference when you substitute the participle ‘remembering’ for the noun. A verb is a doing word while a noun is an immobile abstraction. I used to teach that the upshot is that you have to do something in order to fix stuff in the mental system.
As a parallel way of thinking, emotion is a noun, and feeling is a verb. So ‘feeling’ is what goes on inside us – you can tap it, do something about it, change it – while ‘emotion’ is a plum duff abstraction – you just tip it out of the basin if you can & hope for the best.
What’s in the body somewhere undoubtedly gives rise to feelings while the mental apparatus invents the mental categories we call ‘emotions’.
Incidentally, but in a related sort of way, I was told by a Danish lady some years ago that in Danish there are no separate words for ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ – they are indissolubly linked in the one word indlaering: teaching is learning; the best way to learn something is to teach it. Systemic relationship!
Out of all this it perhaps emerges that the question does shame cause anxiety or the reverse? is the kind of question I remember my Latin teacher Mr Richardson (rest his soul & thanks for whistling to me in order to analyse bits of Brahms’ First Symphony – something I was in awe of) saying ought not to be asked because the very question presupposes that there’s an answer. Electro-chemically it’s all part of the Shame Circle continuum; the neuronal activity is the continuum while the words shift around inside the mind’s stunted dictionary playing a different tune. Damasio’s ‘somatic markers’ are relevant but I doubt they can be labelled in the way we imagine they could be.
Gurdjieff had a word for the connectedness of everything: iraniranumange – the universal exchange of substances. One would do well to adopt this concept; it represents the systemic connection between all things both physical and other-than-physical.
I’m quite sure that low ‘self-esteem’ (not thinking much of your self) is a result of not being able to track all this in a thoroughgoing kind of way and connect it all up (not being able to think much at all); people at the mercy of their bubbling brains are unable to view themselves with any sense of certainty about the way the universe really is (το ὀν). Their aims & intentions are never clear to themselves and so are not linked to anything they can grasp: “nothing I set my mind on ever comes to fruition… I’m a hopeless case…”
‘Emotions’ are Tricky Things
‘Emotions’ are tricky things but what can be said about human-beings with relative (felt) certainty is that they have intentions and hopes: I intend to finish making my point now and I hope that what I write comes out in a way that can easily be understood; we have the intention to make things OK for ourselves and for others; we hope that things will turn out as we expect & when they don’t there’s a great clattering in the something-or-the-other that keeps us going and we feel what amounts to being ‘angry’ or frustrated or shamed or anxious depending what we can do about whatever it is that’s flummoxed us and/or how important it might be. So feelings arise from the outcome connected with what we intend or hope for.
I recently composed a little jazz piece with the intention of proving to myself that I could deliberately write something that a jazz combo might take a fancy to – I hoped they might want to play it. My neurons sorted themselves into a feeling of what might be called ‘pleasure’ when I was told how much the group liked it; the neurons re-arranged themselves into what we might call ‘disappointment’ when I found that they couldn’t appear in the concert it was intended that they play the piece in and then the electro-chemical fizz went into a well-known (to me) dismissive gesture that has a strong swear-word attached to it + ‘the story of my life’. That has a somatic marker well and truly established somewhere down the outside of my left thigh. When I succeed in moving it temporarily to my forehead, I can get into a powerful ‘on to the next thing’ feeling which I expect some culture or another has invented a nifty word for – I’m not sure we’ve got one in English.
In the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (a brilliant Webgroup) I found altschmerz, a German compound word literally meaning ‘Old Pain’ – in itself a pain. It’s defined in full as:-
…weariness with the same old issues that you’ve always had – the same boring flaws and anxieties you’ve been gnawing on for years, which leaves them soggy and tasteless and inert, with nothing interesting left to think about, nothing left to do but spit them out and wander off to the backyard till the next time…
That might do… Or liberosis
…the desire to care less about things – to loosen your grip on your life, to stop glancing behind you every few steps, afraid that someone will snatch it from you before you reach the end zone – rather to hold your life loosely and playfully, like a volleyball, keeping it in the air, with only quick fleeting interventions, bouncing freely in the hands of trusted friends, always in play.
If there’s no word for a complex feeling – one that cannot be given shorthand shrift – what happens to it? How does it enter into our conscious thoughts to figure in our construction of meaning? Things are impossible to pin down without words: ‘the story of my life’ + ‘on to the next thing’ are quite often linked ‘feelings’ for me. The first could be categorised, without precision, as ‘misery’ or ‘self-demolition’ or ‘hopelessness’; the second as ‘being optimistic’ or NLP-type ‘next-steppery’; but there’s so much more involved: the ‘optimism’ of ‘on to the next thing’ for me always contains the alarming proviso that ‘nothing-will-change’ (another emotion nameless as yet, as far as I know).
Anyway, I later discovered that the jazz group will certainly play my piece at another concert and as a result I was iskoloonitzinernly pleased at the news. I think some of Gurdjieff’s invented words are examples of his infinite larking about! iskoloonitzinernly is supposed to mean ‘blissfully’.
As if all this weren’t complicated enough already, the familiar distinction between what we label ‘cognitive’ & ‘affective’ processes is just as much an invention as everything else we concoct in the attempt to explain things. As I recall, Finesmith (1959) rigged up some machine that measured victims’ cognitive/affective responses to the sound of nonsense syllables – there was presumably some minimal ‘cognitive’ effort to understand them contemporaneously associated with an ‘affective response; the neurons made no such distinction. There was an uprising of physical/mental activity; the cognitive/affective feelings are always first, the labels we call emotions come second and skew us into simplistic categories, a process which distorts thinking; distorts the way we feel and how we construct our sense of ‘reality’. How do we know the difference between the distortion and the actual? Especially since there is a marked proclivity to intellectualise everything, emphasising merely cognitive processes. Gurdjieff, with his tongue in his cheek:-
Hence, during all this time, in order to be able to make anything clear to others, they have automatically been compelled to invent and go on inventing, a great many almost meaningless words for things and also for ideas, great and small; and so their mentation has gradually begun to function, as I have said, according to the principle of chainonizironness…
…chainonizironness is the act of making intellectual associations without the participation of the Feeling Centre.
Emotion-words representing feelings come from chainonizironness: the words themselves don’t convey the affective complexity behind the words – never ever can. Without the felt complexity what chance of accuracy?
Let’s imagine, for moment, we were permanently ‘lost for words’, or that some embargo had been placed on the use of words, or even that, like the Greek philosopher Cratylus, we made a decision never to use words again because of their imprecision – we would then have to make do with feelings and thoughts about feelings all mixed up together.
Any encounter with the ‘outside world’ would then become:-
In Lawrence Durrell’s novel Sebastian, Constance is a pychotherapist charged with the task of getting through to a young lad who doesn’t talk and is completely unresponsive to what’s going on around him. For apparently no reason at all he suddenly goes into lengthy torrents of tears and begins to react to Constance in relatively ‘normal’ ways. His grandmother tells her that she has changed her perfume to the same as the young lad’s mother wore years ago before the time of trauma.
Constance was dumbfounded, exasperated and professionally delighted – perhaps this is what had given her such an immediate associative transference with the child, had enabled her to penetrate his emotions so swiftly. And the tears … She went back over the old diagnoses in the light of this new gleam of knowledge. How lucky she had been, for her choice of a new scent to match a new hair-style, a new character change, had been quite haphazard. Had it in fact been a key? She turned to look at the small abstracted face beside her in the looming automobile and wondered. And if all human emotions and action depended on such an affective pattern of association-responses … It was a pure wilderness of associations, a labyrinth in which the sources of all impulse lay. Besides, it was after all sound psychology to trace the roots of emotion and desire to the sense of smell – its vast ramifications had never been completely worked out, and never would be…
Significant meaning conveyed by olfactory accident.
On the other hand we might decide to use words again and commit ourselves to the project of inventing new words to label complex ideas. Of the 17,677 words Shakespeare used, it seems that 1,700 were invented – now we take them for granted. Words like accommodation, aerial, amazement, apostrophe, assassination, auspicious, baseless, bloody, bump, castigate, changeful, clangor, countless, courtship, critic, critical, dexterously, dishearten, dislocate, dwindle, eventful, exposure, fitful, frugal, generous, gloomy, gnarled, hurry and so on through the alphabet…
We could model on Shakespeare in this way. This painting by Gaspar David Friedrich cries out for a word capable of encapsulating the profound feeling it conveys:-
While I was thinking of inventing a word I discovered that there was a Japanese one that would do very well: Komorebi labels the feeling evoked by sunlight filtering through trees – the interplay between light and leaves. In relation to this particular painting one might link it with Eugene Marais’ concept of ‘hesperian depression’, a not well-known emotion we are all supposed to suffer from at the end of day.
If I’m on a train for a couple of stops I often pick a newspaper that somebody has discarded and run my eye over the ‘news’. This item struck me a couple of days ago:-
EVENING STANDARD MONDAY 8 FEBRUARY 2016
Tower plan looms over Blake Graveyard
B. JOHNSON, Mayor of London was today expected to approve plans for a ‘bullying’ 11-storey office block overlooking a historically important graveyard. Bunhill Fields, in City Road, Islington, is the final resting place of more than 120,000 Londoners – including William Blake, whose work includes England’s unofficial national anthem ‘Jerusalem’, and writer Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe.
The graveyard, now protected as a Grade I listed park and Garden of Special Historic Interest, was established in the 1660’s near the site of an older burial ground. It became a resting place for Nonconformists, and also contains the graves of John Bunyan and the mother of Methodism’s founder John Wesley.
A planning application lodged with Islington council in August would involve the demolition of two buildings on the corner of City Road and Featherstone Street and their replacement with four buildings: two of 10 and 11 storeys and two of five storeys each.
The council rejected the plan last October citing concerns about ‘substantial harm’ to the burial ground but the final decision was taken out of its hands this month when the scheme was ‘called in’ by the Mayor. A public hearing on the application from Derwent London was taking place at City Hall today. It is the 15th such hearing on a major planning scheme held by Mr Johnson and to date all 14 have gone in favour of developers. Islington council’s executive member for housing and development, James Murray, said: “Once again, the Mayor has ignored local decision-making for a major planning application.”
Conservationists say the 43-metre block would ‘bury’ and ‘overwhelm’ the graveyard. Tim Heath, chairman of the Blake Society, said the group had been denied planning permission for a full headstone at the poet’s original burial spot adding, “It’s remarkably unfair that an 11 storey building is allowed when we aren’t even allowed to put up a traditional gravestone.”
That the obnoxious Mayor of London intervened to award a developer the freedom to do what they like to a site of some considerable interest, repository of corpses for whom one might have great feeling has me choosing to feel rather more than ‘disgust’. The Power Possessors are subverting the whole world without regard for sensitivities. Reading the article again I invented a word to encapsulate everything I felt about this. So
krungut – is a-feeling-stoked-up-by-reading-a-newpaper-article-about-the-mayor-of-London-sanctioning-the-building-of-tower-blocks-round-the-graveyard-where-William-Blake-is-buried
Then I got into the swing of it…
pertle – is the-act-of-going-downstairs-to-make-a-morning-cup-of-tea-without-switching-the-house-lights-on-carrying-a-small-torch-in-order-to-deprive-the-power-company-of-a-bit-of-profit… The torch becomes a pertle-stick, thanks to my wife for suggesting it!
grundilacious – my novel-reading on a train from Ely to Downham Market was severely interrupted he other day by one of these people who address the whole compartment by talking loudly into their small ‘communalling e-boxes’: half a conversation about renovating his new country residence was succeeded by one about the way the next person on the other end could corner a lucrative market by becoming a professional tutor. Suddenly noticing mid-flow that he was at his stop, he left the train in a hurry abandoning scarf and gloves on the seat. There was time while the doors were still open for me to pick them up and attract his attention but all in a split second I decided not to since he’d invaded my space and, from the way he was talking, would have more than sufficient resources to buy new ones. I needed a word to describe my complex feeling – a new emotion for which as yet there was not a word. I was being grundilacious… An adjective describing a-mean-action-resulting-from-having-one’s-reading-interrupted-by-a-well-heeled-man-on-a-train
And what about a single word for the following unfortunate event (recorded in a newspaper clipping I’ve hoarded since 1995, specially for this purpose)?
A Northallerton postman fined five shillings in 1962 for riding a bike without lights held a grudge against the policewoman for more than thirty years. After he had posted her hate mail on the 33rd anniversary of his court appearance, he ended up back in court and was fined £100.
I think it could be a lestum… The postman suffered a lestum = ‘things-catching-up-with-you-after-exactly-33-years’.
Events have a tendency to bundle themselves up into a whole complex of feelings for which there is no shorthand word. Perhaps our world would be the richer for more words conveying emotion! Emotional neologisms could render thinking/feeling more precise.