Have you ever tried inventing your own word?
Last week, I marked my words. It was my 900th science column. The first 537 were published in the Philippine Star, while the rest are here at their current home in Rappler, which began publishing them in 2012. But they were all written one week after the other, without skipping a week, since July 2002. I got the average number of words across the columns, and it comes up to about 1.5 million words in the last 17 years. If each word were a balloon, that would fill up about 19 hectares!
That imagery is utterly useless in making a dent in my net worth, but it brings home my point of the occupying power of language in the hectarage of our minds.
I dutifully set my weekly rendezvous with words for these columns because they make up the main armory for my hunt. This is the hunt for that stuff we all care about – meaning. Some weeks are more satisfying than others in terms of clarity. Some are more creatively written than others.
But all of them, I can assure you, are thought of and written with the genuine intention of sharing what I think may help us get through some creases in our own understanding of ourselves, each other, and the world. Most, if not all of the time, it leads to other creases. But that is the nature of things – they are always changing and we are somehow chasing after them with our own understanding. And words, while they help us arrive at some understanding, are never “still.” Words in themselves are a many-splendored thing.
Scientists recently point this out big time when they studied about 2,474 languages to see how words for certain emotions are related to other emotion-associated words. They call this method “colexification.” For example, “surprise” in Austronesian languages are related to “fear,” while in another family of language called Tao-kadai, it is related to “hope” and "want.”
Knowing that now, you can now imagine why the choice of words is always so difficult in agreements among different cultures. The study also found that the closer the languages are spoken in terms of geography, the more similar the associated words for these emotions are. But at the same time, they also found that there seems to be an underlying architecture in languages when it comes to words for emotions. Across languages, words seem to be largely defined by the way they trigger our physiology (our heart rates, our perspiration rates) and how much pleasure or displeasure we feel. (READ: Speaking in tongues: How storytelling shapes Philippines languages)
The fact that words for emotions across languages of the world are like dandelions seeds blown in different directions already gives us the insight that words are animated. They move. And among the many reasons they do so are because we shape them with the changing circumstances of the times, and because we make up new ones to name our emotions.
And this is what John Koenig does. He is the author of an ongoing project (on its 7th year in 2016) called "The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows," where he tries to “to find holes in the language of emotion and try to fill them so that we have a way of talking about all those human peccadilloes and quirks of the human condition that we all feel but may not think to talk about because we don't have the words to do it.” His Ted Talk is in itself word-worthy.
You realize there are gaps in your own language when it comes to expressing emotions when I found out from Mr. Koenig that the Greeks have a word that means “hunger for disaster.” It is “lachesism.” I think, given that our country is number one in the World Risk Index in Climate Crisis, we will either avoid inventing a word like that altogether, or if we ever do invent a word like that it will be purely out of sarcasm.
He also mentioned a word in German which I think is counterintuitive, and thua makes it even more interesting. It is "zielschmerz," which is the dread of getting what you want. Maybe it is that which the warning “be careful what you wish for” foreshadows.
When I was a kid, I would read the dictionary all summer long when there was nothing to do and there was no budget to fuel summer adventures beyond where we lived. Having printed dictionaries, especially in hefty, unabridged, hardbound versions like the ones we had before made words seem “sacred” – that we cannot alter what they mean or even make up new ones. We may have accepted that people invented words at certain times but we somehow thought they would only be confined to the meaning that existed at the time they were invented. (READ: [OPINION] How our native languages benefit society)
But words, as part of language, is part of our evolution as humans. They have to change because we humans change not just biologically, but in our heads, as we understand more and bust myths about who we really are and where we came from. For example, “sex” and “gender” used to be unspirited words that you only tick in forms, but they now elicit a myriad of emotions. They are now multi-splendored words because we also now know from our own experiences and scientific data that “sex” and “gender” are not about sexual organs that were apparent at birth, and that who we are should be defined beyond what we were born with or born to. I think that is both scientific and kind, if not just plain sensical.
As we embrace complexity which is the hallmark of intelligence, and I think “kindness,” we check the power of words to rule over us and remind ourselves that, as Koenig also reminded us, words do not have meaning on their own until we lend them their meaning. And “meaning” is not an object with set dimensions that you can cage in a box. Once you invent a word, share it and what you think it means and let others add what it means for them. Watch it grow and morph. (READ: [OPINION] Dengue fever and the language of medicine)
Of all the words, Koenig said that “OK” seems to be the one that is understood universally. For it to attain that stature, we probably all agree on a general barometer for the state of our lives at the moment when we are asked: how are you?
My barometer right at this moment, if you ask me, is buoyed by balloons covering 19 hectares of fields. We each have our own measure of the weight of moments in our lives. Whatever yours is, may it be filled with meaning that will nudge the universal letters we can all agree on. May you be OK.
Thank you for reading the columns.
Merry Christmas! – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at email@example.com.