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What words mean


Among my readers and subscribers (who, I blush to tell you, now number in the double digits, and the first digit is no longer one!) are friends and family who send me ideas or snippets of ideas for blog posts. Or simply bits of this and that, like interesting words.

My beautiful daughter, one of the most life-affirming people I know, sent me two words, new to me, that have been percolating in my WhatsApp for several weeks now. They have blossomed into this post.


Here is the first: eleutheromania, defined as "an intense and irresistible desire for freedom." What a lovely word; what a lovely idea. But let's be clear. Eleutheromania is sometimes defined as a disease, a literal mania, "a manic yearning for freedom" Collins Dictionary tells us. Another source says it can be "an ethical disease with political overtones, since it means craving for freedom and trying to get it at any cost." Other sources, however, describe it as a strong, positive yearning for liberty, be it political, physical, emotional or spiritual. There is an antonym: eleutherophobia, the fear of freedom.


We yearn to be free, not only of physical or political oppression, but of anger, guilt, fear, low self-esteem, worry, loneliness – to fly free, to reach for connection with a great energy that we sense is there; with an unfettered joy whose whisper we may hear just in passing. We feel it, sometimes, in nature. Poets and playwrights have written as much about freedom as they have about love. Richard Lovelace famously wrote from his prison cell,

Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage; Minds innocent and quiet take That for an hermitage; If I have freedom in my love And in my soul am free, Angels alone, that soar above, Enjoy such liberty.


The idea of a yearned-for spiritual freedom brings me to the second of the words my daughter sent: anemoia – defined as "nostalgia for a time you have never known." The word nostalgia comes from the Greek, nostos, meaning to come home, and algos, meaning pain or ache: nostalgia is aching to come home. The word anemoia itself is modern, coined by John Koenig for his fascinating, sometimes sad, sometimes funny, Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. There he defines anemoia as a yearning sadness, almost but not quite a familiarity, that might come upon us, say, when we look at an old photograph of a place, or of people, that we have never known. Many of us have had this experience.


Seeing anemoia linked with eleutheromania says to me that the nostalgia for a time we have never known can in fact be a yearning for a time that could be, a time that is almost familiar to us, a time when spiritual freedom is realized.


Words are defined in dictionaries; words, of course, do have specific meanings or variations on a meaning. But what a word means to a particular person, if and how a word touches someone, awakens in them something – that is another level of meaning. It is what the word means to that person. An item of clothing in a shop window is a shirt, or a skirt, or a pair of pants. When someone buys it and puts it on it becomes more than that. It becomes personal, that person's shirt or pants, the way he or she wears it. Words can be like that.


My mother, a gentle poet gone these twenty years, loved the word halcyon. Why would anyone love a word? Words, usually grouped together, can express love or anger, pain, ideas, happiness, friendship, but how can a single word, out of any particular context, hold for someone a special meaning all by itself? The adjective halcyon denotes, the dictionary tells us, "a period of time in the past that was idyllically happy and peaceful." For most of us, past times were mixed, though in the purity of childhood, when all colors were brighter, feelings stronger and the air sweeter, we had moments or days of untroubled, simple happiness. In memory these times become even more so. My mother, a child of the depression, grew up in poverty in a family of nine children. For a period of time they had no shoes, and there was never quite enough to eat. But when, in later life, she cast her mind back, she remembered simple things like sitting on rickety porch steps eating pieces of ice with her big sister while her mother rocked peacefully in her rocking chair. The sun was blazing but the big tree gave shade, and there were chips of ice to cool the lips and throat. I can see my mother's blue eyes drift back as she talks about those halcyon times.


Halcyon times are oddly connected to anemoia, because remembering those times sets us yearning for a time that, perhaps, never really was. My mother wrote this:


I have forgotten those times, as the rose is forgotten,

As the summer fades away when the autumn comes;

As the white candle's light, blown out in darkness,

Blows never again for the heart bereft even of crumbs.

I sit vacantly by the fire's cold, dying embers;

But oh, my heart remembers, my heart remembers.


The melancholy poet Emily Dickinson, my mother's kindred spirit, wrote this:


A word is dead

When it is said,

Some say.

I say it just

Begins to live

That day.


Words are living human creations. They capture and communicate our humanity, never perfectly, but importantly. A word means what it means; it also means what it means to the speaker, the writer, the reader and the listener, resonating with meaning that words, paradoxically, cannot capture.


Till next time




https://www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com/







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