In Papua New Guinea, awumbuk is the feeling of "emptiness after visitors depart"
The Finnish have kaukokaipuu, a feeling of homesickness for a place you've never visited
In recent years, neuroscience has introduced a new way of thinking about our emotions. The scientists behind the latest brain-imaging studies say they can now pinpoint with precision where these feelings are located within our heads. In 2013, for instance, a team of psychologists published a study in which they claimed that they had found neural correlates for nine very distinct human emotions: anger, disgust, envy, fear, happiness, lust, pride, sadness, and shame.
This is an intriguing trend for academics like Tiffany Watt Smith, a research fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. “It’s this idea that what we mean by ‘emotion’ has evolved,” Smith tells Science of Us. “It’s now a physical thing — you can see a location of it in the brain.” And yet, of course, that’s not all an emotion is; calling the amygdala the “fear center” of the brain offers little help in understanding what it means to be afraid.
It’s exactly that — the subjective experience of emotions — that Smith explores in her charming new book, The Book of Human Emotions. It’s a roundup of 154 words from around the world that you could call an exploration of “emotional granularity,” as it provides language for some very specific emotions you likely never knew you had. “It’s a long-held idea that if you put a name to a feeling, it can help that feeling become less overwhelming,” she said. “All sorts of stuff that’s swirling around and feeling painful can start to feel a bit more manageable,” once you’ve pinned the feeling down and named it.
The odd thing about writing a book about discrete emotions you never knew existed is that you start to experience them — or is it that you were already experiencing them, and it’s just that now you know the name? Either way, Smith tells Science of Us that, while writing her book, she found herself batting away offers of help from others because she didn’t want to put them out. That is, she was feeling greng jai, a Thai term (that’s sometimes spelled kreng jai in translation) for “the feeling of being reluctant to accept another’s offer of help because of the bother it would cause them.”
Below you can find a brief list of ten more extremely precise words for emotions. But fair warning: Once you are introduced to the feeling, you may find yourself feeling it more often.
Amae: To be an adult, particularly in a nation like the United States, is to be self-sufficient. Yet there is something very nice, in an indulgent kind of way, about letting someone else handle things for you every once in a while. The Japanese word amae, as Smith defines it, means “leaning on another person’s goodwill,” a feeling of deep trust that allows a relationship — with your partner, with your parent, even with yourself — to flourish. Or, as the Japanese psychoanalyst Takeo Doi has put it, it’s “an emotion that takes the other person’s love for granted.” It’s a childish kind of love, in other words, as evidenced by an alternate translation of the word: “behaving like a spoiled child.”
L’appel du vide: You’re waiting for the train when an inexplicable thought flashes into your mind: What if you jumped off the platform? Or perhaps you’re driving up some precarious mountain pass, when you feel strangely moved to jerk your steering wheel to the right and sail clear off the road. American psychologists in 2012 published a paper in which this feeling was dubbed the “high place phenomenon” (and their study suggested, by the way, that its presence does not necessarily signal suicidal ideation), but the French term for the phenomenon is much more alluring, as French words so often are: l’appel du vide, or “the call of the void.” As the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once observed, the emotion is so unsettling because of the way it “creates an unnerving, shaky sensation of not being able to trust one’s own instincts.” It’s a reminder, then, to perhaps not always let your emotions rule your behavior.
Awumbuk: It’s a funny thing about house guests. While they’re in your home and you’re tripping over the extra shoes and suitcases that are suddenly littered about your living room, you start dreaming about how nice it will be when they leave. Yet, after they do, your place often feels too empty. To the Baining people of Papua New Guinea, Smith writes, this feeling is so prevalent that it gets a name all to itself: awumbuk, or the feeling of “emptiness after visitors depart.” There is, luckily, a way of ridding the home of this rather melancholy feeling: Smith writes that “once their guests have left, 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.” That’s one way to do it.
Brabant: In 1984, author Douglas Adams and TV comedy producer John Lloyd paired up to publish a book called The Deeper Meaning of Liff: A Dictionary of Things There Aren’t Any Words for Yet–But There Ought to Be. Smith apparently agreed with these two on at least this: that there should be a word for the fun of pushing someone’s buttons, to see how much you can tease them until they snap. Adams and Lloyd defined the word as the feeling you get when you are “very much inclined to see how far you can push someone.” (To my mind, an alternate definition might be “having a younger brother or younger sister.”)
Depaysement: People do some out-of-character things in foreign countries. They strike up conversations with strangers in bars, even if they would never do the same back home. They wear unflattering hats. There’s something about being a stranger in a strange land that’s equal parts exhilarating and disorienting, and this messy mix of feelings is what the French word depaysement — literally, decountrification, or being without a country — means to capture. It’s “the feeling of being an outsider,” and though getting lost because you can’t quite read the street signs as well as you maybe thought you could can be unsettling, the feeling of being somewhere else just as often “swirls us up into a kind of giddiness, only ever felt when far away from home.”
Ilinx: There exists a GIF of a fluffy white cat that speaks directly to my soul. In it, the cat is perched atop a desk, and as its human places various objects near its paws — a lighter, a glasses case, a wallet — it pushes each item off the desk and onto the floor. You might say the animal is expressing ilinx, a French word for “the ‘strange excitement’ of wanton destruction,” as Smith describes it, borrowing her phrasing from sociologist Roger Caillois. “Callois traced ilinx back to the practices of ancient mystics who by whirling and dancing hoped to induce rapturous trance states and glimpse alternative realities,” Smith writes. “Today, even succumbing to the urge to create a minor chaos by kicking over the office recycling bin should give you a mild hit.”
Kaukokaipuu: People of, say, Irish descent who have never actually been to the country of their ancestry may still experience an unexpected ache for it, as if they miss it — a strange, contradictory sort of feeling, as you can’t really miss someplace you’ve never been. But the Finnish recognize that the emotion exists, and they gave it a name: kaukokaipuu, a feeling of homesickness for a place you’ve never visited. It can also mean a kind of highly specified version of wanderlust, a “craving for a distant land” — dreaming from your desk about some far-off place like New Zealand, or the Hawaiian Islands, or Machu Picchu, with an intensity that feels almost like homesickness.
Malu: You’d like to think you are a person of average conversational and social skills, and yet this all evaporates the moment you find yourself sharing an elevator with the CEO of your company. The Dusun Baguk people of Indonesia know how you feel. Specifically, Smith writes that they would call this feeling malu, “the sudden experience of feeling constricted, inferior and awkward around people of higher status.” Instead of this being something to be embarrassed about, however, Smith’s research has shown that in this particular culture it’s considered an entirely appropriate response; it’s even a sign of good manners. Something to remember the next time your mind goes blank when your boss asks you a question: You are only being polite.
Pronoia: At one point in J.D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, Seymour Glass muses about himself, “Oh, God, if I’m anything by a clinical name, I’m a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.” About three decades later, sociologist Fred Goldner came up with a name for this: pronoia, the opposite of paranoia. Instead of the fear that you are at the center of some diabolical lot, pronoia, as Smith describes it, is the “strange, creeping feeling that everyone’s out to help you.” And, hey, just because you’re pronoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to help you.
Join the conversation
Torschlusspanik: Life is passing you by. The deadline’s approaching. The train’s a-comin’. Literally translated from German, torschlusspanik means “gate-closing panic,” a word to summarize that fretful sensation of time running out. It may serve you well, when experiencing this panicky emotion, to hesitate before allowing it to spur you toward impulsivity, and call to mind the German idiom Torschlusspanik ist ein schlechter Ratgeber — that is, “Torschlusspanik is a bad adviser.”