What does a word feel like?

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Haven't you ever umm-ed and aah-ed desperately while you hunt for a word, a way to label a feeling or thought? Well, feelings are like vapour, amorphous and wispy, while words condense them into semblance and shape.

Every word is a potpourri of disparate feelings and ideas corralled into distinct combinations, each of which captures human experience in lexical capsules we can peruse at leisure. | The Blue Diamond Gallery

This past semester, we studied the Romantics. Many of them wrote nature poetry, but the images can often come off as stereotypical, ludicrous — so blandly Romantic. The first time I read Tintern Abbey I was underwhelmed. Meadows, hedges, mountains. Okay. So? Coleridge: what precisely was a “pleasure dome”? Shelley: some wind, some musical instruments. But Keats, oh boy, Keats. The effects were so visceral. The language was heavy with meaning — “loaded”, “blessed”, “ripe” — much like the fruits of life in ‘To Autumn’.

As I grew familiar with the verses, I began to feel that what the words conveyed was not simply a picture, but something more elaborate. A feeling. An entire moment, a string of moments, a sense of atmosphere. Once I tuned into this, I went back to some of the other poems and found that same quality in them. Not words that painted mountains and meadows and storms, but mountains and meadows and storms that built up to something.

Our professor said it in lecture after lecture, and then I read it myself: that the poets were trying very hard indeed to say something specific, to communicate the nature of a particular type of moment or feeling, and that all they could do, really, with the limited tool of language, was approximate it. Pile the metaphors high, make word lists, put it all together, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll know something of what that window in time felt like to me.


Words divide life into capsules. Each capsule contains a particular mood, a set of sights, sounds, and smells. Each capsule is a moment to aspire to.

They were trying to talk about the nature of inspiration, a bubble of experience that held access to a transcendent power, something far beyond the capacity of the senses, perhaps even the mind. Writing was a process of reaching for a mode of expression that could accurately capture the contours of this bubble. The beauty of reading is in the process, in knowing that the descriptors are all a little off-centre, in knowing that there is the word, and then there is something more. And that we might never know what that something is.

It’s a familiar feeling, really. Suddenly finding yourself in the grip of something, some nameless emotion and not knowing how to put it into words. A something evoked by a memory, by a snatch of music, by the tone of a person’s voice, by the silence of your surroundings, the disappearing scent of a flower as you walk past a creeper in bloom draped over somebody’s gate, the strange warmth of entering a new neighbourhood for the first time. That these moments are difficult to describe is a mark of how fleeting the feelings underlying them are, indeed, of how fleeting most feelings are.

Perhaps we dislike this lack of control. We don’t enjoy not knowing when this pleasant, aching emotion will return to us. And that we don’t possess the verbal abilities to recall it faithfully, to come as close to reliving it as we can. We search for ways of collecting feelings, gathering them up into little luminescent bundles of meaning that we can use to manipulate our experience of life. We search for words.


Over the last year or so, there has been a lot of conversation around the idea of untranslatable words. These are words that have no precise equivalents in English, and which generally also carry with them some connotations from their parent cultures that won’t find expression in English phraseology. One example of such a word, which gathered great momentum over 2016 and which was widely written about for its significance as a publishing trend, a market phenomenon, a marker of identity and — in some cases — ideology, and as a feeling, was the Danish word ‘hygge’.

Wikipedia says the following of hygge: it is a “quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being (regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture).” Hygge is interesting because of how specific its meanings are. Writers across the board have noted how closely the emotion appears to be tied up with particular material objects, the presence of loving company and even the weather. Anna Altman writes in The New Yorker of the apparent significance of “candles, nubby woolens, shearling slippers, woven textiles, pastries, blond wood, sheepskin rugs, lattes with milk-foam hearts, and a warm fireplace” to the cultural picture of how to enjoy, or attain, hygge.

There are arguments for the greater integration of words like this one into the vocabulary of the average English speaker. Tim Lomas of the University of East London works in the field of positive psychology. In a piece published in the Scientific American, he writes about his research in the area of loanwords and describes his attempt to create a “positive cross-cultural lexicography.” The Positive Lexicography Project aims to collect words from languages all over the world for experiences and states that are in some manner linked to the idea of wellbeing. To Lomas, these loanwords, all subtle and specific descriptors of feelings and traits, can “enrich our understanding of wellbeing” and “expand our emotional and cognitive horizons.” That is, something about the nature of experience and how we process it can be altered if we have the language tools to describe and classify better.

The database of the Positive Lexicography Project yields up several gems and the effect they have on us is much the same as that of the hygge phenomenon. Here are a few examples:


Qarrtsiluni (Inuit): Sitting together in the darkness, perhaps expectantly (e.g., waiting for something to happen or to ‘burst forth’); the strange quiet before a momentous event.

Beschaulich (German): Quiet, pensive; living a simple life; pleasantly contemplative, unhurried in a fashion that inspires mental well-being.

Seijaku (Japanese): Quiet (sei) tranquillity (jaku); silence, calm, serenity (especially in the midst of activity or chaos).

Turangawaewae (Maori): Lit. a place to stand; a place where we feel rooted, empowered, and connected.

Waldeinsamkeit (German): Lit. forest solitude; the strange feeling of solitude or loneliness when alone in the woods.

Feierabend (German): Lit. ‘evening celebration’; the festive mood that can arrive at the end of a working day; can also just mean the end of the working day (with no particular festive connotation).


In addition, select individual words are occasionally thrown into the spotlight: The Finnish sisu, the Swedish lagom, the Norwegian utepils, and many others. The meanings they carry are atmospheric; they hit on special pockets of feeling. Lomas, discussing the effect that some of the words in the database can have on us says: “Firstly, there are words that spark an immediate flash of recognition; I know the feeling well, but just never previously had the mot juste to articulate it… Secondly, there are words I think I’m familiar with, but which still leave me intrigued, as if their full meaning and significance elude me.”

These are seen as words that equip us in our endeavour to make sense of experience. The idea is to expand our emotional or experiential vocabulary — to add to the quality of experience by expanding the range of words we may use to process it. Perhaps I am treading dangerously close to a linguistic or phenomenological debate about the relationship between words and private realities, words and shared realities. But this argument begs the question of why exactly we want to name feelings, and of what the feeling becomes once we name it.

One way to think about this is by considering the second question first. What happens when we give form to something as nebulous as a feeling? The word functions in much the same way as a photograph does on a social media platform. Many of these words pertain to feelings of places, of people, of lifestyles — and to be able to attach such labels to one’s own life is a deeply attractive prospect.

Words divide life into capsules. Each capsule contains a particular mood, a set of sights, sounds, and smells. Each capsule is a moment to aspire to. When we read the Romantics, the yearning, chasing language shows us that expression is the art of reaching for meaning but it also tells us something about the quality of that reaching. To a poet who was out of sync with inspiration, life was dull, pale — painful even. All existence was anticipation. For us, each untranslatable capsule represents a kind of ideal moment. And days spent waiting for ideal moments are days spent restlessly, distractedly. And once in possession of a feeling, however fleeting, we live in some dread of its departure, of our own exit from the capsule.

The point is that this isn't a phenomenon specific to the introduction of foreign words. It’s pretty much how we spend our days on a regular basis, only the capsules have English names: “security”, “fulfilment”, “belonging.” For a dose of added nuance, one has only to think of the forms these ideals take for us: security in a relationship involves feeling assured about how much one is loved, looking for and finding markers of affection in the behaviour of another person; belonging is the quiet joy of knowing what a group of friends is laughing at, of saying something and being listened to, and so on. Experiences have names — names we long to lay claim to. As many as we can, for as long as we can.


We can name experiences in the abstract, but how do we know when we’re really, genuinely, in the world of a word? If your waldeinsamkeit is tinged with a niggling craving for pizza, is it really waldeinsamkeit? What if you’re feeling pretty hyggelig but there’s one friend in the room whose sporadic inane chatter is sort of killing it? And wait, it’s warm outside and you have the A/C on indoors so is this really hygge after all? What if your resfeber is also just dread of the moment you’ll have to come back home and deal with life? When the feeling does hit us, it comes with worries about whether we have furnished it adequately. The instant in which we name a feeling is also the instant in which we begin to worry about its imperfection, its impermanence.

Why then do we feel so attracted to the untranslatables? It has a lot to do with how seemingly familiar many of the subtle feelings they capture are, and yet, how crisp and exotic the words themselves sound — ornamental and just about useful, like printed silk. It’s possible that the urge to name is an indicator of something else though, of a secret suspicion we all harbour that a feeling isn't real unless we can talk about it later. Half the fun of an experience is being able to recall it later, to add layers of meaning to it by clothing it in descriptive and analytical language, teasing apart the strands of feeling and motivation, narrating responses to external stimuli in minute detail. And the more words we have up our sleeves the more we can prettify our portrayals of our lives.

Untranslatables also look great as Facebook statuses and Instagram captions; they make us seem interesting, our minds and vocabularies seem esoteric, removed from mundanities and boredom, edging instead towards the more trendy realms of peace, wellness, mindfulness, thankfulness, self-awareness.

Words are beautiful things. They empower, they embellish. They linger. They flit about the edges of experience, bring us as close to conveying meaning as is humanly possible. But we can cram our mouths and pages with as many words for emotions as we like, it won’t make it any easier to feel them. We will stay searching, frozen and yet somehow frantic, for perfect bubbles of wonder to grace us, and all the while feelings (both named and nameless) will wash over us and slip away, escaping notice because they go and mere words cannot make them stay — because experience is a mist and not a room full of bubbles. There is the word, perhaps the untranslatable word, and then there is something more.

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