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Words that don't exist, but should
I didn't forget your name, I just tartled
Yesterday morning, rinsing off a spoon, I found myself wanting a word that doesn’t exist. A word for the particular sensation, cold and mildly irritating, of splashing water onto the cuff of your sweater. You know the feeling, right?
Let me back up. I’ve been listening to’s “The Art of Noticing” series on the Waking Up app.1 Walker is the author of a book bearing the same name, The Art of Noticing,2 which I devoured in 2022. One of my favorite of Walker’s invitations to practice the art of noticing (which is really the beginning of any art) popped up in the “Beyond the Five Senses” chapter of the audio series. After an exploration of our many senses beyond sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell—senses like awareness of temperature (thermoception), awareness of movement and location (proprioception), and awareness of balance (equilibrioception)—Walker introduces a truly gorgeous concept: infrathin.
I got a note from writer and super-friend of TAoN Anne Gisleson who has been using The Art of Noticing book with her students at NOCCA. One had zeroed in on the idea of the “infrathin" — Duchamp’s poetic notion of sensations or qualities that fall outside the traditional five senses, or “states between states,” as Kenneth Goldsmith has put it. (More here, and more still in the book.)
“I hunted down an example of infrathin or a ‘state between states,’” the student wrote, “and decided that the windup right before a sneeze is infrathin.”
Somehow up to this point I had never quite drawn the connection between the infrathin and the idea of the “named phenomenon.” Or maybe I should say: phenomena that could be named.
My splashed sweater cuff, beaded with droplets and chilling my wrist, ought to have a name.
During our weekly Art Night (how I’ve spent my Saturday evenings with Rilla since she was six years old—she’s seventeen now, if you can believe it!), I told Rilla about infrathin and the quest to name phenomena that don’t have names, but could. This sparked a lively discussion (note: neither of us wound up working on our art projects last night but the conversation was golden) about examples of infrathin and, related, things or ideas for which some languages have words and others don’t, like German’s fernweh (a feeling of longing for a faraway place you’ve never been) or the Scots verb tartle (when you go blank trying to remember someone’s name, you’ve tartled).
Rilla has been creating a fantasy world for several years, and by now her worldbuilding is quite complex. Describing its many forests, she mentioned needing names for all the different kinds of woods—names that fit the senses and observations of the unique creatures in her world. This reminded me of Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful book Landmarks, which collects highly specific place-names from all over the British Isles, such as:
breunloch, a “dangerous, sinking bog that may be bright green and grassy”
rionnach maoim, “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day” (What poetry!)
bugha, “a green bow-shaped area of moor grass or moss, formed by the winding of a stream”
While sharing snippets of Landmarks with Rilla, I happened upon another example of infrathin—the vivid image in my mind of where I was when I first read (or rather, heard) that same chapter. It was August of 2016, when we still lived in San Diego. I’d taken the kids to Harry Griffen Park. Huck would have been seven years old, Rilla nine. They were playing on the jungle gym while I walked laps around the playground, listening to Landmarks on audiobook. I remember the weather, the wide sky, the smell of sagebrush from the trails at the fringe of the park. The sound of the kids shouting on the playground. My shoes sinking into the lush, irrigated part of the park and crunching on the crisped grass on the parking-lot side.
How’s that for a phenomenon-that-could-be-named? The mental image that arises of the circumstances of a first reading when you read the thing for the second time.
When I described the memory to Rilla, she thought my example of infrathin was going to be a mother’s awareness of what her children are up to even when she’s absorbed in something else.
We’re keeping both of them—and the splashed cuffs—for our collection of things that don’t have names but absolutely should.
How about you? What are your own experiences of infrathin?
I’m undecided about whether to do Bookshop.org affiliate links here. I did for the two books above, but didn’t for last week’s post. What’s your feeling? Annoying? Convenient? Icky? May as well? Genuinely interested. Another option is to just stick them in a “recently mentioned” list on Bookshop and not worry about including individual links here.