Humaning, Nero, and Obscure Sorrows

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January 16, 2022 by libroshombre

Once long ago my mother read to me every night at bedtime, and she also read to herself a lot: 300-400 pages a day.  Now she’s bedridden with an inoperable brain tumor and has lost much of her sight, so I read to her daily to pick up the slack.  We are blazing through one of our favorites: the Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout.  The fictional Wolfe is an obese genius whose hates to leave his New York brownstone except for his only passions: rare orchids and fine dining.  The legwork for his detecting is performed by his sidekick, Archie Goodwin, an amusing wiseacre, who narrates their adventures.  Archie is an amusing wiseacre, and Mom still laughs at his cracks.

Wolfe immigrated from Montenegro and became a prodigious reader; that allowed him to develop an equally prodigious grasp of the English language. This reflects Stout’s own remarkable lifetime of reading and command of the language, and his books are peppered with unusual words that are perfectly honed and applicable.  For example, Stout’s “The Red Box” includes “craichy” (dilapidated), “apodictical” (unquestionably true), “phenacetin” (an analgesic), and my favorite, “ortho-cousin” (a cousin from a parent’s same-sex sibling), among many others.

Stout was most remarkable, both personally and as an author.  His authorized biography by John McAleer (available at our library) describes how Stout mother ran their farm while raising a bustling family.  Rex was her sixth child – she named him Rex because, when he was born, “he came out like a king.”  He learned very early that his busy mother often found peace by retreating into books.  McAleer described how, “to share in his mother’s world, Rex began to read too – at eighteen months.”   He was permitted the run of his oft-absent father’s well-stocked (1,126 volumes) library.  “In his fourth year he read not only the Bible (twice), he read Baron Macaulay’s ‘Essays’ and some of his ‘History’ … One day, when Rex was four, May (one of his big sisters) found him making marginal notes on page 866 of Gibbons’ “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”  That’s when his older siblings started reading him some lighter fare, including “Little Women,” “Robin Hood,” and “Swiss Family Robinson.”  Unsurprisingly, at 13 Stout became the Kansas spelling bee champion, and when he went to Kansas State University, he only stayed a week after he realized he was better read than most of the faculty.  As the subtitle of his biograhical article on the site states, Stout was an “Author, Businessman, Sailor, Activist, Family Man, & a Person with Many Interests,” all of them with success and unusual aspects, and I heartily recommend both McAleer’s biography for a look at a most admirable man’s life, and his eminently re-readable Nero Wolfe mysteries for lifelong pleasure reading.

            It’s wise to choose your words carefully.  As an anonymous sage said, “Words are seeds that do more than blow around.  They land on our hearts and not the ground.  Be careful what you plant and careful what you say.  You might have to eat what you planted one day.”  That’s advice a lot of advertising writers ought to heed.  “‘Thumb-Stopping,’ ‘Humaning,’ ‘B4H’: The Strange Language of Modern Marketing,” a article describes how “‘Humaning’ (“We are no longer marketing to consumers, but creating connections with humans”) was coined by Mondelez International, the company that makes Oreo cookies, Ritz crackers and Philadelphia cream cheese, with the help of the Ogilvy advertising agency … Almost immediately, the coinage elicited a particularly human reaction: ridicule … Bob Hoffman, an advertising industry veteran behind the Ad Contrarian newsletter, was also less than pleased by the linguistic innovation. ‘n any sober industry,’ he wrote, ‘the perpetrators of this nonsense would be taken out back by grown-ups and beaten to a pulp. Then they’d beat up on the pulp.”  However, the article admits that “Every industry has its argot, and that certainly includes Library Land, with its ISBNs, vertical files, and Boolean searching.  But fabrications like “brand heat” (“When “buzz” lost its buzz, brand heat came to the rescue”), “snackable content” (“Short promotional videos made for smartphones and other devices”), and “OTT” (“over-the-top” streaming content, “PDOOH” (“programmatic digital out-of-home” (“ads placed through an automated bidding process on digital billboards”), and “TLA” (“ a type of acronym. Specifically, “three-letter acronyms”) seem excessive.

Hardly less fanciful is John Koenig’s “Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a website and recent NYTimes bestseller “that coins and defines neologisms for emotions that do not have a descriptive term.  “Gwenders,” for instance, is “that tingling feeling you get in your fingers when they’re cold,” and “Lonesome-Fret” is the “feeling of restlessness or unease that comes from being on your own too long.  It set off a social-media backlash when it entered the lexicon”

Koenig doesn’t pull his coinings from thin, random air; they’re “based on his research on etymologies and the meanings of existing prefixes, suffixes, and word roots.  His “euneirophrenia” (“the feeling of contentment that comes from a pleasant dream”) came from the Greek word for dream, “oneiros.”  Similar collections of made-up words, concepts, etc. are known in the publishing world as “fictionaries.”

            Then there are real words from foreign languages that describe precise universal feelings but have no equivalents in English.  Fortunately, the University of East London’s Tim Lomas is collecting them with his Positive Lexicography Project “to capture the many flavours of good feelings (some of which are distinctly bittersweet) found across the world, in the hope that we might start to incorporate them all into our daily lives,” according to a BBC article titled “The Untranslatable Emotions You Never Knew You Had.” “Learning these words, he hopes, will offer us all a richer and more nuanced understanding of ourselves … Lomas says he was first inspired after hearing a talk on the Finnish concept of sisu, which is a sort of “extraordinary determination in the face of adversity” … According to Finnish speakers, the English ideas of ‘grit’, ‘perseverance’ or ‘resilience’ do not come close to describing the inner strength encapsulated in their native term. It was ‘untranslatable’ in the sense that there was no direct or easy equivalent encoded within the English vocabulary that could capture that deep resonance.”

            Lomas harvests words that express “highly specific positive feelings,” like “desbundar (Portuguese) – to shed one’s inhibitions in having fun,” “gigil (Tagalog) – the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished,” and “iktsuarpok (Inuit) – the anticipation one feels when waiting for someone, whereby one keeps going outside to check if they have arrived.”  He also collects “more complex and bittersweet experiences,” such as “wabi-sabi (Japanese) – a “dark, desolate sublimity” centered on transience and imperfection in beauty,” and “saudade (Portuguese) – a melancholic longing or nostalgia for a person, place or thing that is far away either spatially or in time – a vague, dreaming wistfulness for phenomena that may not even exist.”

            Last September legislators in several backward-leaning states introduced bills outlawing the use of many words in public schools, including equity, hegemony, intersection, and social justice.  They were quickly rebuked and could use some “desenrascanço (Portuguese) – to artfully disentangle oneself from a troublesome situation.”  For everyone else, my wish for you is a whole bunch of “sukha (Sanskrit) – genuine lasting happiness independent of circumstances.”

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