How are you? I’m fine. But am I really fine — satisfactory or in satisfactory condition? Fine has become a bland, pat reply, as standard as a handshake. What if, instead, we took a moment to examine the full spectrum of human emotion — and vocabulary — and considered how we really felt?
Maybe this morning you had a breakthrough at work and now you are illuminated (free from confusion or ambiguity; clear). Or perhaps the breakthrough makes you feel particularly judicious (having good judgment or common sense in practical matters). On the other hand, after a few beers and a friend’s sob story about a cute drowning puppy rescued in the nick of time, according to Facebook, you may find more maudlin (excessively sentimental, usually with drunkenness), while a true tragedy may result in feelings of melancholy (deep, thoughtful sadness). If fine is the beige of human emotions, Patrick Michael Ryan’s book, Dictionary of Emotions: Words for Feelings, Moods, and Emotions opens us up to the full color spectrum.
Ryan is not who you might expect to be the author of such a dictionary. Rather than a psychiatrist, therapist, or academic lexophile obsessed with feelings, he is a former actor. While trying to immerse himself in each character he portrayed, he learned that acting required him to explore the varying shades of human emotion.
“I found myself searching for tools to aid in improving both my characters’ emotional development and my own emotional intelligence,” he writes. “I desired the ability to assign emotions and the intensity of those emotions to each circumstance in each scene of the script.” Not finding an easily accessible resource, he decided to create his own, writing: “I realized that a dictionary of emotions would be of value for all of us who want to expand our emotional vocabulary.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines emotion as a “natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others.” But while emotions may be natural and instinctive, coming up with labels for them can be tough. There is, actually, a word for the inability to identify and describe one’s own emotions: alexithymia. It appears in about one in ten and is a component of a number of psychiatric conditions. After exploring Ryan’s book, you will be whatever the opposite of alexithymic is. Polylexithymic?
Though, hmm… maybe I shouldn’t make up words. It might make me appear impetuous (impulsive; unduly hasty and lacking thought or deliberation) or inane (extremely silly or stupid). Then again, maybe I’m just self-flagellating (extremely critical of oneself).
The Dictionary of Emotions is accompanied by a separate emotion journal. The journal is a series of prompts to encourage deeper exploration of emotions as they relate to particular events. It includes places to write the event (where, when, with whom) and a section to describe your related thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Each space is accompanied by an emotional wheel, with various emotional categories (joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, etc.) written around the rim, “to help you identify the multiple emotions, and the intensity of emotions, that occur during a single event” in a visual way.
I could see the benefit in filling out a handful of these, particularly if you had a therapist or someone else to discuss them with. However, there are probably close to a hundred pages of the same format, which seems excessive. More than one type of exercise in the journal would have greatly increased its utility, even if the basic premise is a good one.
The dictionary itself is fun to flip through as you sample various feelings and try them on for size. But while Ryan’s decision to put words in alphabetical order might seem logical at first blush, it isn’t practical for this particular dictionary. Part of the enjoyment of the book is finding new emotion words you might not have heard of or used before. But since the words are alphabetical, you have to already know the word or its first letter to look it up.
The book does offer an abbreviated list grouped by categories — anger, anticipation, disgust, fear, joy, surprise, and trust. But grouping words around emotional themes might have proved more useful. (Perhaps Ryan’s next book can be a thesaurus.)
Still, Dictionary of Emotions is engaging. Spend some time with it, and you won’t need to say fine again.
Dictionary of Emotions: Words for Feelings, Moods, and Emotions
PAMAXAMA, September 2014
Paperback, 350 pages