February 7, 2020 | Narrative
words we never knew
discovering new words for old feelings
I’m watching a “Cutest Moments on the Bachelor” YouTube video with my friend Ben, landscape shots of tropical islands flipping to footage of intimate conversations in perfectly constructed gardens. The video cuts to a close-up of a contestant holding her face and grinning into her hands, too giddy to formulate whatever she hopes to say. She looks into the eyes of that season’s bachelor and admits, repeatedly, “I’m so smitten!”
I realize that “smitten” is one of those words whose meaning has always drifted past me, that blends so seamlessly into its context that I don’t even think to question it. I ask Ben what exactly it means.
“Oh!” He sighs into a bright smile. “It means…really drawn to. Almost like infatuated. It’s such a good word.”
It is such a good word—it’s almost muffled, like the contestant’s dialogue as she giggled through her hands. It’s cute and cozy, like a mitten or a kitten. Smitten.
Of course, I knew this word, but I hadn’t truly understood it. I immediately felt regret that I hadn’t looked it up earlier. And even though Ben’s explanation was patient and his expression kind, I still read confusion on his face: You write fucking poetry and you don’t know the word “smitten?!”
It’s a word I really could have used, both in life and in a whole bunch of poems. The word was missing from me, but its concept wasn’t—I must’ve talked around it, or thought it up in images, or shown the feeling on my face.
That moment of learning “smitten” makes me think of a snowy evening at Brown a few years ago, when I was trudging home to Chapin through the white sidewalks, aligning my steps with those left by snow boots before me. The sky hadn’t quite fallen to black, but a deep blue had settled into the frosty air, its darkness accumulating like static.
At the intersection of Thayer and George, I stepped under a streetlight and looked toward the silent road, not a car or soul in sight. Suddenly I found myself inside of a memory—my view was several feet closer to the ground, but the same kind of packed snow crunched beneath my feet. Another hazy streetlight, its shade a tired orange, was thrown over uneven piles before me—and the same feeling rushed through my core, viscous, frigid, and slow.
Loneliness, I thought, my exhale collecting in a white cloud and streaming up through the air. That was loneliness: a night where I’d insisted on staying outside to play long after the snow had stopped drifting down through the sky, the slow and sudden capture of the atmosphere by sunset and by stars, the pale streetlight leaving an orange patch at the edge of my driveway, the sight of nobody else.
This was my first memory of experiencing something bright, joyful, and communal in low light and solitude; it’s my first memory of feeling lonely. And I remember it now, at a time where I can think of the correct word, when I can see its amorphous shape behind my closed eyes, can remember it elsewhere, piece it together or apart, or try to talk it out and away. That childhood night, standing in orange-lit snow at the edge of my driveway, I did not know its name. I had no choice but to feel it.
Standing at that intersection just outside Brown’s campus, in a process that was both similar and had somehow occurred in reverse, I put a new word to another thing not unknown but still not yet learned. I put a word into my younger self who did not yet have the tools to pick it apart, to know it in any way outside of its pure existence.
What do we call the new acquisition of something already intuitively known? And does this knowledge transform the nature of feeling it? It’s a learning process that feels sort of like a revision. It paves the way for specificity and power, for redefinition, for intellectualization or dismissal. Discovering a word can deeply validate a feeling, allowing us to connect through shared experience. Or, it can create the possibility for misunderstanding through generalization—a single term can never truly describe the same experience across different bodies.
The English language provides an extremely limited set of words to describe our emotions, which arguably encompass our most human experiences. This is partly why I love the work of poetry: It tackles the language of feeling, and therefore of connection. Sometimes I find myself at the edge of a stanza and feel, despite my frustration with not really knowing what the author describes, that I do know it in this unnameable way—that I would “know” it vocally or concretely if only there were a word out there to describe it.
I try to find a word that describes this simultaneous learning and knowing of a word. It may exist in some niche corner of academia, or deeper in the internet than I am willing to search, or maybe in another language. It’s a word I would love to know—the moment of learning a “new” word, the thrill or regret of its existence in a form that can be shared. The moment of either its unlearning or its unfolding.