Perhaps our friend is feeling l’appel du vide right nowPixabay: PublicCo

This week has seen the start of a new term, a new year, and for many of you, the start of your entire university experience. New experiences always lead to a whole host of new feelings, so I thought it might be nice to make these, and the way in which languages other than English express them, the subject of this week’s column.

One particular feeling that a lot of us are likely to be experiencing right now is conveyed particularly well by the German word fisselig. This refers to feeling flustered to the point of incompetence, perhaps due to the nagging of a parent, a supervisor, or even one’s own conscience when the guilt of not working on that assignment gets too much. This feeling of being flustered is so strong that it can actually cause us to make errors in the task we are supposed to be doing, like accidentally copying a minus sign down as a plus under timed conditions (something I definitely never did at A-level), or missing out function words like ‘the’ in essays, which serve a purely grammatical purpose.

“Thoughts of potential self-destruction or sabotage occur naturally, and it is the ability of our mind to replay it that causes l’appel du vide

I can also imagine that a lot of you will have experienced the feeling conveyed by the Arabic word طرب, or tarab, which best translates as a feeling of enchantment or ecstasy because of music. It’s that feeling you get when your favourite song starts playing on the radio, in a club, or even in the streets if you’re lucky enough to like the same songs as a busker, and you turn the volume up to its highest, or simply stop what you’re doing for a few minutes to listen. I felt this for the first time when I was three years old, and happened to have decided upon a song called, somewhat predictably, ‘Hey Baby’ as my personal favourite. My extreme excitement and happiness when it started playing on the radio at nursery can only be conveyed as طرب.

Returning to the work-related side of things, we are confronted by the all-too-familiar feeling conveyed by the French phrase l’appel du vide. Those of you who studied French at school might recognise that this literally translates as ‘the call of the void’, and in its least figurative sense it refers to the instinctive urge to jump from high places. It’s the feeling you have when you’re at the edge of a cliff and wonder what it would be like to jump off it, or the sudden wish to leap onto the tracks just as a train is approaching. In a less literal sense, it also refers to the urge we have to self-sabotage: the urge to binge eat ice cream after an hour’s workout at the gym, to give up on a goal just as you’re nearing the finish line, or even the sudden and (hopefully) transient urge you feel to destroy something you’ve worked on for months.

The psychology behind this strange sensation is actually fairly simple, and relies on the notion of mind memetics. Thoughts of potential self-destruction or sabotage occur naturally, and it is the ability of our mind to replay it over and over that causes ‘l’appel du vide’. Imagine you’re standing at a train platform, your feet coming right up to the edge. Your nervous system automatically starts to warns you that you’re in danger. Your heart begins to beat faster, adrenaline courses through your veins, maybe your pupils even dilate – the thought of your potential self-destruction has been created. This recognition of danger can merely exist as a passing thought, but if you continue to replay the scenarios in your mind, the call gets stronger and stronger, and may even lead people to actually enact the scenario in the most extreme cases.


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Expressible: The Specifics

The next two untranslatable words I’ll look at describe feelings we only experience in specific scenarios. The first, from Italian, is unfortunately one that I seem to find myself experiencing far too often in Cambridge: abbiocco describes the feeling of wanting to fall asleep just after eating a big meal. I know I’m definitely not the only one who always makes way more pasta than I need, and I really hope I’m not the only one who feels so full and sleepy after lunch that a nap is more of a necessity than a possibility. And everyone agrees that the time between dinner and when it’s socially acceptable to turn in for the night really does need to be shorter. The second of these words is taken from the Inuit language, which is spoken by only 100,000 people in the whole word, who live in just three areas: Greenland, Canada and the coast of Alaska. The Inuit word iktsuarpok refers to the feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to arrive, that causes you to keep going outside to check if anyone is there yet. It makes great procrastination when you know you have a long essay to write and at least an hour left before your friends are coming over to save you from death by boredom.

So, what has this week’s scattering of words which express our feelings taught us? That failing to work when extremely flustered is an actual thing, that your sudden urge to jump off the cliff you’re standing on or randomly sabotage everything you’re working towards is actually quite normal, and that wanting to nap after food is never something you should be ashamed of

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