You all know by now that I love words. If you’ve read my ‘About’ page, you know that many of my friends do as well, so it should come as no surprise when I say that several of them routinely share words with me over social media. Some of these come in the form of words from other languages, others are English words I might not already know due to age or obscurity, and others are made up. One thing they all have in common are interesting definitions.
My friends are hardly the only ones who share this pastime. Usually the unusual or unknown words are shared from websites, blog posts, articles, and tumblr accounts where other people are collecting and sharing them among wide audiences. There are even subreddits ( custom-made subforums on reddit.com) dedicated to “interesting and novel words” and creating new words.
I’ve found words like these from pages of untranslatable words from other languages:
Litost – a state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.
Mamihlapinatapei – The wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start.
Ya’aburnee – Literally: “You bury me.” A declaration of one’s hope that they will die before another person because it would be so difficult to live without them.
And I’ve found other words in lists like these from pages showing “obsolete words” we should use again:
Apricity – The sun’s warmth on a cold winter’s day.
Curglaff – The shock one feels upon first plunging into cold water
Elflock – Tangled hair, as if matted by elves.
The idea behind both of these is more than the literal grouping. These aren’t just lists of words from other languages or words that aren’t spoken anymore. Very few of us are truly interested in those things beyond admiring the romantic idea of them, or we would simply pick up foreign dictionaries and translation guides and start reading very old literary texts. If you asked most of the people who share these links over social media to start these— that this thick book full of complicated, obscure words is just the thing for them, or that that they would really love to read this English to Tshiluba dictionary from cover to cover— they might look at you oddly, give you a short thanks, and set the books on their shelf, never to be read.
Instead, these lists and websites are a persuasive argument: You should start using these words. You should know them. They should become a part of your life and how you process the world around you.
And many of us are persuaded. However, we do not use them in conversation as just the words themselves, because that was never the intention of those who brought the words to us. The intention is not really sharing the words at all, but sharing the definitions. When we send them to our friends or post about them online, the definitions are always included, and it is a discussion of the concepts, emotions, and images presented in them that brings us pleasure.
These images are from the tumblr account Other Wordly which prides itself on the fact that these words are real.
“Some of them are coined words, meaning words that were made up by someone, but that later entered into common usage. Some are bastardizations or combinations of other words, and others are from a language other than English”
Her definition of ‘real’ words is agreeable, but doesn’t seem exactly limited to official standard English either, particularly with the part about “bastardizations” and “combinations of other words.” What’s interesting is that people are concerned enough to ask if these words are real (maybe after not finding them in their dictionaries) and she soothes the worry in this way. There is a need for validity here that reminds me of the way we are so hurt when we read a story we believe is true, only to learn large parts were fictionalized. It reminds me of the emotional reaction of people discovering an anonymous post on the internet could simply be telling a made-up story. “What do you mean ‘people on the internet lie?’”
I don’t mean to suggest these words are lies, though, or that they are in any way barred from our language. As I’ve said before, language is a living thing. Even the words which are from other languages or are created for the purpose of sharing them online could be introduced and integrated to our language through simple use among enough people for enough time.
With that said, I believe that along with sharing these words comes an inherent resistance to actually integrating them into our daily language. These words begin to lack the emotion we first felt when reading them as soon as they’re separated from their definitions. The words don’t really capture these ideas— the definitions do. We feel an attachment to the written meaning that we can’t part with long enough to just use the word.
One of the best examples of this is the word “Sonder.” In every discussion of obscure and little-known words, this one comes up in conversation no matter where I seem to be. But every time, anyone who uses it is counting on someone asking them what it means so they can pull up the exact wording of the definition.
It’s easy to see why this would be shared: it’s a thought-provoking, sad, and beautiful idea that many of us experience. The concept this word represents is a sentimental and romantic one, without being overly cliched. It still gets to us.
However, in the strictest sense the word isn’t ‘real’ at all. It’s not obscure so much as it is new, because it was invented about a year ago on The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows and has since been passed around the internet.
On some level it doesn’t matter if any of these words are real or not. While some genres (like creative nonfiction or reliable dictionaries) rely on the relative accuracy and factuality of their contents, there are other genres (like poetry) which freely move between reality and imagination, resting at some place of truth.
These definitions describe ideas, realizations, feelings, and images that are otherwise difficult to convey and share with other people. When we find a word that drives us to share it with our friends, it is because it has woken something in us in the midst of our daily routines. It doesn’t matter whether they are real or not real so long as they’re true. The point isn’t whether you can find the words in the dictionary— the point is whether you can share a feeling with someone. These obscure words are titles, and their definitions are like short prose poems.
On May 14, Amy Tan wrote on her Facebook page:
“But from an early age, I was a writer because I had a feeling about words — that no one word was sufficient to describe what I really felt or saw or had experienced. I tried to find variations in a thesaurus. The nuances excited me, but the answers were not there. The word “love” was not enough to express what love was, nor was the word “unfair” able to capture why I felt I had been punished for what I did not do. The word “alone” did not capture what had happened last week or what might happen in the future. A single word was like a left shoe that belonged to someone else and was too small, yet had to be worn because there was nothing else.”
It’s one of the best descriptions of why we write that I’ve ever read. As much as I love words, what I love more is their combinations and the act of stringing them together to explain all of what could be held by each one. That is why I write this blog, trying week after week to explain all the weight on these words.
But, words themselves are small, simple things when compared to the intricacies of fantasy and reality. We can never really expect words to hold all the weight of infinite, internal worlds, the weight of every story and all significance they might represent. They need other words to help them carry it. Single words can never express what we truly mean.
These ‘obscure’ words soothe the part of us that has a need to be expressed through language. They show us words untranslatable from other languages, words that have gone out of use even though their meanings are still relevant, or they show us new words for ideas that don’t yet have a resting place in the pages of our dictionaries. These words appeal to us because they imply and promise “all the other words you’ve heard couldn’t say this, but this word can.”
But of course, it is a false promise, a white lie. The words themselves are just as powerless alone as any word, and maybe more so because of the fact that they are old, uncommon, invented, or not in our language at all. The white lie is hopeful, though. The definitions attached give us the feelings that we don’t have words for, and isn’t that what all writing aims to do?
It is an interesting phenomenon to me, as a poet, that in a culture where the average reader has not read a poem since their last English class, these definitions are so appealing. I think that whether or not we have found the first poem or passage that opens us up and lets us feel alive, fresh, and new again— we yearn for it to happen.
We’re leaving our palms open, reaching for the right words with open hands, and when we find them, we want to share them and wake the world. Or, at least, I do.