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Describing emotions

The gap between our two types of thinking (rational and emotional) also shows up when we try to describe experiences and emotions using words.

Have you ever read a piece of poetry or heard a song lyric which beautifully captured a feeling you’ve experienced, that you’d never have been able to adequately put into words yourself?

It’s so difficult because our use of words and language is mainly a conscious, rational activity, while in contrast, the feelings and emotions we want to describe are subconscious, emotional experiences. We simply struggle to find words that are adequate enough to describe the richness and nuance of emotions.

There are some wonderful examples from non-English languages, where they have words for emotions and experiences we are all familiar with. Some examples:


(Pronounced: hoo-ga)
This well-known Danish word describes that pleasant, genial feeling of being warm and cozy indoors in winter.


(Pronounced: eek-soow-uhr-pohk)
This Inuit word describes the irresistible urge we have to keep looking out of the window when we are expecting a visitor to arrive. (A modern version of this is checking your phone every few minutes if you are expecting a message!)

Pena Ajena

(Pronounced: pain-a a-hina)
A Spanish term to describe the acute embarrassment we feel on behalf of other people, such as when a singer drops a bad note in a performance, or someone falls over in public.


(Pronounced: en-sen-glee-rah)
Norwegians have a word for the joy you feel when you meet up with someone you haven’t seen in ages.

Here are some other experiences we should have words for:

  • The growing sense of alarm you feel when your mobile phone battery has less than 5% charge remaining.

  • The disappointment you feel when something turns out not to be as good as advertised, like a holiday destination, a Tinder date or an apartment you have viewed.

  • The joy of waking up early and realising you can still have two more hours of sleep before the alarm goes off.

  • The pleasant feeling you get at the end of the Saturday of a Bank Holiday weekend as you contemplate that you still have two more days off work.

  • The moment you take off uncomfortable high-heeled shoes and walk on plush carpet.

  • In a restaurant, when you have been so busy chatting with your friends you haven’t yet looked at the menu, and the waiter comes back to see if you are ready to order… for the third time.

  • In the same restaurant, that panicky feeling you get when your friends start ordering their food and you still have no idea what you want.

What other emotions do we need words for?

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