Thursday, September 13, 2007

Things the English Language Needs Words For

I really dislike when people try to be clever by pointing out the holes in the English language. They're right - why should only Germans, for instance, get to invoke concepts like Zeitgeber, the psychic "reset button" of the spirit, or Gewehrdummheit, which translates literally to "gun-foolishness"? - but they always go about the exact same way of attempting to prove their point: For some reason, the example they'll smugly offer is invariably the fact that, while deja vu is an everyday part of the lexicon, the term has no opposite counterpart.

This is annoying because it's not true. The opposite of deja vu is jamais vu, and it denotes a sensation whereby you know you've done something often enough for it to be familiar, yet it has the air about it of utter freshness. Technically it's not really an accepted part of the English lexicon, but then, neither was deja vu, until it became such.

There are things we don't have words for though. We don't have a word, for instance, for the warm feeling of nostalgia elicited by remembering how much you once despised something. Being as our generation are utterly insatiable in our desire for nostalgia-inducing artifacts from the recent past, it frustrates me intensely that there's no word to describe the strange, inner-grin feeling I get when I hear a Silverchair track off Frogstomp, or Days of the New's debut single, or the Reverend Horton Heat's really-quite-good It's Martini Time. A friend and I recently spent an entire morning searching for a copy of Sublime's breakthrough album just so she could bask in this strange, entirely earnest sort of reverse-fondness. (To my shocked protestation, she paid full price for it).

It's important to stress that this is different from "ironically" forcing yourself to like something because you find it so appealingly awful (drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, dressing like Scritti Politti). This is the bizarre yet undeniably real feeling of fondly re-experiencing the strength of the feelings you once had for something; it just doesn't matter that those feelings were, at the time, rage or revulsion or the urge to vocally condemn the offending entity in a manner which itself, you now realise, probably verged on the unbearably obnoxious.

Something else I don't know of a word for is what we might as well, as a placeholder, call "hypercredulity": an unsettling feeling that feels a lot like disbelief, but is borne not out of witnessing a seeming impossibility, but witnessing something that just seems so inevitable it's hard to believe it's actually having the temerity to happen.

William Goldman likes to tell a story about how he and a fellow movie insider were driving around in LA, and the fellow mused, "I wonder what the weather's going to be like tomorrow", at which exact point the radio announced, "The weather tomorrow is going to be..." Goldman points out that this could never happen in a movie: audiences wouldn't buy it because it's just too on-the-nose.

Hypercredulity isn't exactly like that, but it's very similar: you have trouble with something because it just seems like reality is fucking with you by being uncharacteristically obvious. I experienced this the other day when I was at the bookshop: Don DeLillo's latest book was on the feature shelf, and it was called (of course) Falling Man. I picked it up to read the blurb, to find that it was (of course) a domestic drama about people living ordinary lives in (of course) post-9/11 New York City. The sheer inevitability of such a product being created made it seem difficult to accept that it existed; more like one of those dreams where, when you're explaining it to someone, you describe some sort of crazy thing, and then justify it with, "but you know, in the dream, this sort of thing was inevitable".

Another example of hypercredulity is John Cusack's latest movie, Grace is Gone. In Grace is Gone, Cusack (of course) takes his children on a cross-country journey (of course) because he's nervous and putting off telling them their mother has been killed in Iraq (of course). The mere combination of John Cusack, the current point in John Cusack's career, the kind of movies that have succeeded of late, and the current international worrying-points, make such a movie (or not just "such a movie" so much as "this exact movie") so inevitable that, again, it's somehow difficult to reconcile yourself with the notion that such a movie exists.

One more thing I feel there should definitely be a word for is something K and I once termed "delarity". The birth of delarity was this: K and I had just spent a weekend in Hanmer Springs, and we were driving back home, and the car broke down. (This may have been because it was a family hatchback and we had just driven it up a fucking mountain; or maybe because we had been using the uncommonly length patches of road to see just how fast this family hatchback would go if you let the sumbitch rip; or maybe it was Just Its Time).

And where did the car break down? The car broke down in, apparently, the absolute furthest point in the South Island from any other point of consequence. So far that it took roadside service hours and hours and hours to get to us, and it would have taken us even longer to get to food or lodging or even drinkable fucking water. And maybe it was the ridiculousness of the situation - it is utterly impossible to become stranded on the road in New Zealand, except possibly for on the Desert Road, and even then there's horses about you could eat or in a pinch ride to civilisation - but we quickly descended into uncontrollable hysterics.

Everything, suddenly, was hilarious. And we reasoned that we were not on drugs, but we were suddenly so hungry and tired we might as well be. It was not unlike, after a party, when it's 3am and most folks have gone home and just a few good friends have stuck about, and you find yourself talking about something totally inane, and suddenly the most minor notion will strike you as hilarious and you'll be unable to stop laughing for a good five minutes. And the next day, when you think back on it, you'll be unable to figure out what made it the slightest bit funny.

Because you're delirious. And it's hilarious. So the situation has descended into delarity.

We need a better word for this.

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