Can’t find the right word to describe how you feel? Reach for The Happiness Dictionary

Can't find the right word to describe how you feel?

If words fail you, it may be time to reach for a different language. Peter Foy finds a book that helps you do just that

By Peter Foy

I can’t be the only person who occasionally struggles to find a word that does justice to my feelings. It happens when my emotions are running especially high. When I’m not just happy, but really happy. Not just in love, but head-over-heels in love. Not just optimistic, but filled with a profound sense that all will be well in the end.

    ...if there isn’t an English word that captures my precise feelings at any given moment, there’s a fairly high chance I’ll find a Finnish one. Or Portuguese. Or Romanian.  

For years, I’ve found this experience frustrating. I’ve taken it as a sign of my limited vocabulary. An indication that I should expand my linguistic knowledge in order that I’m not forced to wave my arms around while groaning inchoately, hoping that such action will convey the deep emotion I’m struggling to put into words.

But now, thanks to the pioneering work of Dr Tim Lomas, I have a way to cope. I simply abandon my native tongue and reach for an unfamiliar language. Because, if there isn’t an English word that captures my precise feelings at any given moment, there’s a fairly high chance I’ll find a Finnish one. Or Portuguese. Or Romanian.

You get the idea. Dr Lomas has compiled a lexicon of foreign words that are untranslatable, but communicate good things. Commentators have christened it the ‘happiness glossary’ and that’s a pretty good description.

Let’s look at an example. We’re all familiar with the Danish word, ‘hygge’, which communicates a sense of emotional comfort located in a particular place. Actually, that doesn’t do it justice, which shows just how difficult it is to express the concept in English.

Can't find the right word to describe how you feel?But here’s the rub, because Norwegians and Swedes don’t struggle to convey the meaning of hygge. They have words with very similar meanings, presumably because they too value a warm place to snuggle into when the temperature drops and the light fades.

Now that’s all well and good, and maybe of profound interest if you happen to make your living as a linguist. But Dr Lomas is a “positive psychologist”, so his concern is about more than mapping the way words are used across cultures.

For Dr Lomas, the power of expanding our vocabulary to include these untranslatable words is simple: it gives us a greater opportunity to express positivity, and is therefore likely to make us feel better about life.

That is why he’s published The Happiness Dictionary: a collection of the words he’s found that don’t have an English parallel, but which will greatly enhance our ability to express good feelings.

    If expanding our vocabulary is a way of making us feel better about ourselves, and about life in general, it can only be a good thing.  

The use of non-English words in English conversation or written discourse is nothing new. Anyone who’s uttered the phrase “L’esprit de l’escalier” will know this all too well. It means, literally, “The spirit of the staircase” and is used to describe that frustrating experience when you think of the perfect riposte about five minutes after the encounter in which it should have been deployed. It’s pretty much a constant feeling for me.

Likewise, scholarly discourse frequently deploys foreign tags to communicate meaning with more economy than English allows. Consider the use of “e.g.”, “pace”, and “mutatis mutandis” ­– they are all words that litter textbooks and academic monographs, with which readers are expected to be familiar.

The difference between this use of non-English words and the use proposed by Dr Lomas is simple, however: The Happiness Dictionary is for everyone, to enhance our positive feelings and enrich our lives. The use of Latin tags is almost the exact opposite: it’s about creating a distinction between those in the know and the uneducated masses, signalling erudition and perpetuating exclusivism.

That’s why I’m such a big fan of Dr Lomas and his project. If expanding our vocabulary is a way of making us feel better about ourselves, and about life in general, it can only be a good thing. Here’s to the power of words to change the world.

Published: 9 April 2020

© 2020 Just Recruitment Group Ltd

If you enjoyed this article, you may like: Why encouragement is the greatest motivator

You may also enjoy: Just on mental health and wellbeing

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