Can You Feel Something If You Don't Have a Word For It?

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Have you ever had a feeling that you didn't have a word for? If you haven't, do you think that such feelings don't exist? One anthropologist's work seems to suggest that not having a word for a real feeling can happen — and that it can really screw up both a person and a culture.

Robert Levy and Hypocognition

In the early 1960s, Robert Levy, an anthropologist, spent two years in the Society Islands in Tahiti. Ten years later he came out with a book that coined the word "hypocognition", which was all about a society's inability to coin an appropriate word. Hypocognition is the lack of a necessary, or at least helpful, word to express an experience. In the case of the Tahitians that Levy studied, the missing word was "grief." In the Society Islands, just like everywhere else, people lost loved ones and felt that loss, but they described themselves as feeling "sick" or "strange" afterwards. They didn't seem to have words like "grief" and "sorrow."


Hypocognition, Levy argued, was not just a personal problem. It isn't like having a word stuck on the tip of the tongue. It marked a cultural deficit that wounded people. Without terms for grief and sorrow, people didn't come up with many rituals to alleviate them. Levy found that the islands had a high suicide rate, and believed that the lack of ability to express grief might have been a reason for it.


Borrowing Words and Changing Minds

While hypocognition's scope and power are debatable, there's no denying the fact that people are voracious when it comes to useful words. There are few cultures that don't borrow words from their neighbors, when those words are useful in expressing specific feelings. English is peppered with foreign words that help us express what we experience. I know I experienced a massive amount of schadenfreude while I was drinking my apéritif and saw a woman who fancied herself an aficionado mispronounce "je ne sais quoi."


Expressing new concepts does more than add a frisson to conversation; it opens up our minds to an entirely new area of inquiry. The lack of an appropriate concept can stop us from even thinking about something. One paper claimed that hypocognition might cause doctors to ignore evidence when making medical decisions. If a study shows that a treatment is helpful, but doesn't provide a framework that allows doctors to understand why it might be helpful, or how to further investigate or develop the treatment, it could easily be ignored. Numbers alone don't convince people when they're not put in context. If a context doesn't exist, research and practice doesn't move forward until a context is created.

The Lighter Side of Hypocognition


Not all corrections to hypocognition have to be heavy stuff, like grief and scientific advancement. One of my favorite authors tried to give everything a word. Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, put out a book with John Lloyd called, The Meaning of Liff. It started as a slightly-drunken party game, during which Adams and his friends picked out the names of English towns and pretended the names were words that they had to define. As they were coming up with different definitions, they realized that, as humans, they all shared common experiences that don't have names.

My favorite word of the book is "shoeburyness," which is defined as "the vague uncomfortable feeling you get when sitting on a seat which is still warm from somebody else's bottom." Everyone has felt that. One author I read went to a strict college at which men were forbidden to sit in a seat directly after a woman vacated it, because he would feel her residual body heat and the dean of women considered that too sexual. But no one came up with a word for it. Once there is a word for it, people can begin to refer to it. What concept do you think needs a word? I nominate "splincing" — when you're completely in the wrong, and hate it, and you daydream about someone wronging you so you can feel righteously aggrieved about something.


[Via Hypocognition - a "Sense of the Uncanny", Hypocognition and Evidence-Based Medicine, Issues in Family Medicine]