Feelings We Need Words For

English is so bad at describing what it means to grieve. We use words like bereft or bitter or sad, or we say we have a broken heart. But none of these really get at the nuances. The words don’t seem to capture each exquisitely painful feeling.

For example, there should be a word, maybe borrowed from German, a language so good at expressing complicated mental states in a single lengthy word with many chewy consonants, for when you miss someone so incredibly, achingly much, when that person pervades every thought, every interaction, every waking moment, but you also loathe them. Because they treated you badly, or because they were too weak to be honest with you. Because you were betrayed. And because you loathe them, you hate yourself for missing that person so intensely. For missing the laughter they inspired; for wishing for the easy intimacy that you built. You hate yourself for knowing that they aren’t worth so much sadness, that such an outlay of mental energy is entirely wasted and useless. But you feel it anyway, and you cry in the shower or into your pillow or anytime something reminds you of that person. Which is all the time. There should definitely be a word for that.

There should also be a word, maybe from the French, who do existentialism so well, for the feeling of disconnection you cultivate when you walk through the streets with your headphones on, sad songs blasting into your ears loudly enough that you can pretend you are alone. You pass by other people almost without seeing them, since you can’t hear them. You walk by shops and offices on the sidewalk, going somewhere or maybe not going anywhere in particular, feeling like the music in your ears is a soundtrack to your sadness. This song makes you think of that person; that song comes close to capturing how lonely you are without them. You isolate yourself physically because you feel so isolated inside; surrounded by people, you are still alone, because you have been abandoned by that one person who made you feel somehow less alone.

English is also missing a word for how it feels when you know that person has moved on so quickly. When you find out you weren’t as important as you thought you were. When you realize that they were acting selfishly instead of caring about you, or when you understand that you didn’t really come into it at all for them, they were just doing what they needed to do. Maybe it should come from Russian, because the Russians know despair. You thought you were finally getting over them.  You could almost go an hour, if you were busy with something really important, without thinking about them. Then you see a Facebook post or hear some gossip from mutual friends, and you realize you weren’t over it. Not even close. You realize you were still holding out hope that you would get back together, that there would be some way to repair the damage, to be happy again. When that hope is crushed, the fragile Jenga tower of your life tumbles down. There should be a word for that kind of defeat.

And there should also be a word for when you’re just so tired of being sad, for when you are tired of being lonely but somehow don’t know how to stop. When you’re tired of crying, tired of thinking about that person, tired of missing them. You can’t yet make yourself recognize all the bad things; remembering how you’ve been done wrong doesn’t help. But the hurt over the good things, the things you still miss so much, is a dull twist in your stomach now, instead of a gaping hole in your chest. You don’t know how to turn that off, don’t remember how to be happy. But you sort of remember happiness as it existed before that person, and you want that so desperately. You want to stop this misery that drags at your ankles and eyes and insides. You know it will take time, but sometimes just the fact of being tired of crying makes you cry. Maybe we could co-opt a word from Japanese for that, since melancholy is a specialty of theirs.

There should be an English word for all these feelings of grief. And I desperately wish they existed now, just so I could tell you, next time you ask, how I’m doing in only four words, instead of all these. TC mark

image – Helga Weber


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  • Grace Yeoh

    I also think English needs to create a word to describe this piece. But since there isn’t, ‘wow’ would suffice.

    • http://www.nosexcity.com NoSexCity

      When someone writes a piece like this, I think the single-word options are better left unknown.

  • Jesus

    The word you’re looking for is “sad.”

    You’re welcome.

    • https://twitter.com/iamthepuddles Jordana Bevan

      first Babel now this? dammit, Jesus

  • Guest
    • Coolman65

      so what? this article is brilliant, poignant and relatable. the one you linked is a snotty piece of trash by some a-hole who doesn’t have the balls to write about his real feelings. same broad concept that anyone could have thought of, WAY different executions. and this one’s way better. go away.

  • Clare Ramon


  • Valerie

     So articulate and well written. Seriously. This is just so very apt.

  • Guest

    Thanks for this.

  • http://twitter.com/VinnyDamaceno Vinny Damaceno

    So good!!!!

  • MC

    “Sad”? That’s so heart-breakingly reductive. The second paragraph needs a word immediately.

  • Donna Dreamstate

    Great article. I also think there needs to be a word for the feeling of sadness, and loss, when you finally give up on a hope that you had held on to for the longest time. 

  • EAZ

    When someone finds these words, even if they’re in the languages you mention, please pass them on.  Because I am feeling all of them right now.

  • http://jennbenn18.wordpress.com JennBenn18

    Beautifully stated, with only the words we have to use.  I wish I wrote it.  <3

  • rachel

    Тоска (Russian, pronounced tos-ka)

    “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its
    deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish,
    often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull
    ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a
    vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may
    be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia,
    love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
    -Vladimir Nabokov

    • Nick

      Major depressive disorder is the closes thing I can think of, but thats like three words.

  • https://twitter.com/iamthepuddles Jordana Bevan

    Can we all agree these words MUST come from languages other than English? English words are so ugly… Unless it’s a word describing how terrible something/someone is

  • Loo

    Just another word to drop. I really enjoyed this article conceptually. While at times stylistically it got a little bit off beat to me, overall I think this is a beautiful piece of expression. 

  • http://twitter.com/RESEWON Theresa Won

    “Emotions, in my experience, aren’t
    covered by single words. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated
    hybrid emotions, Germanic traincar constructions like, say, “the
    happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping
    with one’s fantasy.” I’d like to show how “intimations of mortality
    brought on by aging family members” connects with “the hatred of mirrors
    that begins in middle age.” I’d like to have a word for “the sadness
    inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of
    getting a room with a minibar”” – Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides

  • Anonymous

    I highly recommend “Sehnsucht” if we’re talking complicated mental states expressed by the German language – literally means a kind of deep longing for something, but in a grander sense.

    To C.S. Lewis, Sehnsucht represents the “inconsolable longing” in the human heart for “we know not what.” It is, he writes, “that unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of “Kubla Khan,” the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=68101821 Dana Leader

    First paragraph: Closest is 
    Sehnsucht (german) – a longing—never fulfilled— which is itself sweeter than the fulfillment of any other human desire mixed with Weltschmerz (also german) – the general pain caused by an imperfect state of being or state of the world

    Second paragraph: Acedia (latin/english) – not caring or not being concerned with one’s position or condition in the world mixed with Dysphoria (greek) – intense feelings of depression, discontent and indifference to the world around them

    Third: разочарование (said razocharovanie) (russian) – a destruction of expectations caused by the disappointment of someone else’s actions similar to English’s disillusionment

    Fourth: Anguish (english) – the experience of an utterly free being in a world with zero absolutes as experienced in Existential despair – a stage of development at which an individual questions the very foundations of his or her life: whether his or her life has any meaning, purpose or value 

    I hope that helps some!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=68101821 Dana Leader

      Also good for you might be: Limerence (english) – an involuntary state of mind which seems to result from a romantic attraction to another person combined with an overwhelming, obsessive need to have one’s feelings reciprocated.

    • Annahme

      hmhmh, sehnsucht comes close, but it isnt very specific. people always assume german to be this specific, technical language, but i don’t feel that it is. i am german, and to me “Sehnsucht” just denotes longing for someone, but not in that specific heart broken, desparate way. sehnsucht can be a very positive emotion, something you feel for someone you love, even your mother, but it doesnt necessarily include a broken heart….

      but my pedantic criticism aside, i dont think actually finding words to describe these feelings was the point of the wonderful article…

  • http://twitter.com/nawasaka Becky To

    Razbliuto, from Russian? The sentimental feeling for someone you once loved but no longer do.

    • http://www.nosexcity.com NoSexCity

      Now that’s a good one.

    • Anonymous

      but I don’t feel sentimental, I feel embarrassed and miserable. ‘heavy boots’

      • vc

        “heavy boots” — EXACTLY.

  • Sophia

    This is so heartbreakingly perfect and relevant and just askjdfas;dkla. (see? I don’t have words!) So much love for this piece.

  • http://www.facebook.com/grc15r Gregory Costa

    I need a word to describe the feeling that I made a wrong turn somewhere in life recently and need to find a way back on track…what am I doing?  Where am I going?  Why am I stuck with adolescent high school kids who only seemed concerned about the latest update broadcast on their cell phones?

  • Guest

    Thank you for understanding. 

  • Guest

    Oh, how beautiful. 

  • Iusuiusui

    i am so scared

  • Guest

    this is how i’ve felt for 7 long months. thank you for putting it into words.

  • Guest

    My favorite word in Portuguese fits the bill for all these emotions: Saudades.

    • http://twitter.com/mariedabbles Marie Martinez

      My favorite word as well! I was looking through the comments to see if someone had mentioned it already!

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