It’s always so hard to describe these things

Posted on December 22, 2010


Another recycled piece. This one posted in a short-lived blog called “But That’s Not Funny.” I think I’ve had 24 visitors there in total, so I don’t figure many people will be saying, “What? That old thing?”

I'll take Sharp Objects for $300, Alex.

“It’s always so hard to describe these things,” she said, and since I was in full agreement, I grunted an affirmation. We’d been having a desultory conversation on pain. The problem with trying to talk about pain is that the thing being discussed can only be felt by one person. The same is true of any feeling, from pain to joy to fear. Each, by its very nature, can be felt only by the person feeling it. Someone may be experiencing the same feeling, but it is not the same feeling being felt by the other.

If you see what I mean.

These feelings are inherently subjective, and so coming up with agreed-upon terms for them is all but impossible.

Or, like she said: “It’s always so hard to describe these things.”

On the other hand, we do describe them.

Not always with a great deal of accuracy, but considering that our accuracy for reporting on the physical world is often a little skewed (just ask any lawyer about the value of “eye witnesses”), I’d say we do pretty well with the abstractions.

Want a quick demonstration?

Think of “sharp” and “dull.” For as long as we’ve had fingers, we’ve been devising newer and better devices for cutting them off. And we’re universally familiar with the difference in the feel of these devices when they’re “sharp” and when they’re “dull.”

You get poked with a knife, you draw back and say “ouch!” So does everyone else when it happens to them. When we see people draw back from a knife and say “ouch,” we know what they’re feeling, even though we’re not feeling it at that moment. It’s a common perception. We can make a word for it. “That’s sharp!” we say accusingly, generally at the offending knife itself.

So understanding the feeling of “sharp” physically, and being able to communicate this feeling to another, is quite understandable.

But along with knives, edges, tin cans, and porcupines, we also tend to agree that the sound “Eeeeee” is inherently sharper than “ohohohohoh.”

More than that, we are in general agreement that it is “higher.”

The sound of glass falling to the floor is “sharper” and “higher” than that of a watermelon, which is “duller” and “lower.”

In fact, I think most would agree that the word sharp is “sharper” than the word dull.

Through words we manage to tell doctors not only where it hurts, but that the hurt is kind of “prickly,” “gnawing,” or even “sharp” or “dull.” And in many cases that information will be important to the diagnosis.

To take this to another degree of wonder, not only can we communicate these inner states to each other, we sometimes do so for hours on end.

“I’m feeling blue, man, but there’s a really jagged edge to it.”
“You know when the world seems to be bearing down on you?”
“I’m so happy! I feel light as a feather!”

What do we mean when we say that the soda has gone flat? We mean that the tingling sensation we expect to feel on our tongues isn’t there. What do we mean when we say a movie is flat? We mean that the movie was written and directed by a committee, employing audience focus groups to decide the outcome of every major scene.

“He spoke with a flat inflection.”
Upon hearing the news, Dierdre’s expression flattened.
“You’re not going!” he said flatly.

So very many words describing physical properties, yet used in an agreed-upon manner for inner states.

It may be hard to describe these things, but I think it’s really cool that we manage to do so as well as we do.