Words and Their Meanings

Hi Fun Kou Gai: (Japanese) righteous, miserable anger, a frustration and despair over a situation that seems terrible but cannot be changed.

Weltschmerz: (German) a feeling of melancholy and world-weariness.

Lebensmüde: (German) being tired of life; fed up and depressed.

All of these words describe (better than any English word) how I’ve been feeling over the last few months. No one event kicked it off. These feelings have been slowly building for, oh, years and many things all came to a head at once. This feeling is new to me. It is deep. It is exhausting. I have never minded melancholy before; in fact, it is one of my favorite aesthetics. There is a warmth and nostalgia that comes along with that kind of sadness. But this new world-weariness has none of that warmth. It just makes me tired. Like, cannot do much besides get out of bed some days kind of tired. Do not care about things I used to tired. I have been seeing a therapist for depression and that has helped a great deal. I am learning to embrace depression.

One thing that has made the most difference to me is language. Mr. Rogers, of children’s television fame, once said that whatever is mention-able is manageable. Having the vocabulary to talk about something is powerful. Knowing that enough other people have felt a similar thing that there is a word for it helps normalize emotions.

A benefit of feminism is that it, too, provides a vocabulary to talk about sexism and oppression. I could not put my finger on why I felt so uncomfortable with the way women were portrayed in some films until I learned the word objectification. I was not sure how to explain why the lack of diverse female characters in books and on TV bothered me so much until I started hearing about representation. Words like misogyny, rape culture, patriarchy, intersectionality, benevolent sexism, male gaze, and privilege (white and male) have helped me understand the world around me, myself, and how I move in the world much more clearly.

While all too often trying to address the problems that feminism tries to address can lead to hi fun kou gai and lebensmüde. (This is where the words ‘self care’ become important.) It seems like nothing changes, and in fact one could argue things are getting worse. It feels as though we are moving through a period of backlash against the progress that has been made in recent history. When I talk to many of the more conservative or traditional people that I know about issues of feminism and problems with patriarchy, I often feel like we are talking past each other. At least in some cases, I am realizing that this is a vocabulary issue.

Take the word ‘patriarchy’ for example. In Mormonism the words patriarchy and patriarch have very specific connotations. The patriarch is the benevolent leader of the family/congregation, or even more specifically, The Patriarch is a calling with specific responsibilities. When I am talking about patriarch in the context of feminism, I mean the hierarchal structure of society where men have more power (institutional and interpersonal) than women for no other reason than they are men. Once I made an off-handed comment to my sister-in-law about how the patriarchy had me feeling down, or I was frustrated with the patriarchy (I do not remember exactly what I said or the context). Her reaction was shockingly strong and shockingly negative. While my sister-in-law is a strong woman who believes in equality of the sexes, she does not spend much time talking or thinking about feminism, and therefore did not use the secular form of patriarchy by default like I did. When I realized that and clarified what I meant she was better able to see my perspective. Patriarchy is always problematic; I’m not trying to say that the church’s patriarchy is somehow ok. This is just a specific example of words getting in the way of communication.

I do not have a solution to this problem. It is something I have been thinking about a lot lately though, as I watch the discourse around me become more and more polarized. I am not naïve enough to think that using the same vocabulary would suddenly solve all misunderstandings and lead to world peace. Obviously people can be on the same page in terms of the language they are using and still disagree, and that is fine. But at least both parties are fully aware of what they are disagreeing about. The other problem is who’s job is it to teach or explain? As a woman I get so tired of trying to explain to the men in my life what micro aggressions are and why they are bad. (I cannot imagine how sick PoC must get of trying to educate others about race issues.) Despite these limitations, I cannot help but think that there must be some benefit to knowing the audience so to speak and adjusting our communication accordingly.

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4 Responses

  1. Ziff says:

    I really like your point about how feminism provides a language for naming things that were hard to articulate before. I experience this too, not just with individual words (sorry for the tangent) but with reading what other people say more broadly about their experiences, and frequently they’ll explain some problem and really pin it down clearly in a way I hadn’t ever been able to articulate to myself before. Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  2. Andrew R. says:

    As someone who lives in the land where the English language originated I fully understand the concept of “two great nations divided by a common language”.

    I remember not too long ago my comments about the use of the word “march” for protest not being understood to the point of considering me being abusive. However, in England we have protests and demonstrations, soldiers march into battle.

    I do find the language of feminism mystifying. Just in your short list I had to google “male gaze”. I had figured it our correctly, but it was reassuring to know that. However, “male gaze” is important in some respects, and is only bad (I am assuming) when unwarranted. Women who seek a partner tend to dress, apply make up, etc. in order to attract men. If men never looked at women the species would cease to exist.

    And so there is a thin line for women and men.

  3. spunky says:

    This is so powerful, Jess R. Whilst I was reading your post, I thought of the Waitangi Treaty in New Zealand. It was written in both English and Māori, but the interpretation of linguistic terms has made for ongoing issues in New Zealand government — in a bizarre threadjack: kāwanatanga (governorship), what was declared to be ceded to Queen Victoria in one part of the Treaty, but that rangatiratanga (chieftainship) *not* mana (leadership) was retained in another part of the Treaty.

    Language, and misunderstanding of terminology on both sides is an ongoing political, historical and racial issue. Your essay addresses the feminist issue perfectly, in ways that my own words have failed me. I was just thinking today about the feelings and thoughts I had in the ways I felt I was being treated unfairly within the church because of my gender– and how– because at that time, I had been taught feminism was a bad thing, I shunned the people who would have given me support. I am glad I have healed from that false “feminist” terminology – I hope we can all do better –but like you, I am tired of explaining micro aggressions…. and so, so, so many other things.

  4. Chiaroscuro says:

    as a linguist, i love this. the sapir-whorf hypothesis says that our language affects how we experience and think about our world. i felt the same way about you when discovering the language of feminism helped me articulate some of the angst i had been feeling

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