Words at Play

Desiderium, and More Obscure Feeling Words

Think 'there are no words'? Think again.


Definition: an ardent desire or longing; especially: a feeling of loss or grief for something lost

Most of us are familiar with the word desire, which, in addition to a number of other things, can mean “something desired.” And some of us are familiar with this word’s less-common cousin, desideratum, which means “something desired as essential” (the plural of this word is desiderata). Yet far too few of us are familiar with what is perhaps the least-known member of this particular family, the word desiderium. All of these words come from the Latin desiderare (meaning “to long for”), yet only desiderium carries the meaning of having feelings for something that we no longer have, and wish very much that we did.

I have studied almost every principal writer on the subject, but must except the general History of China, translated by Father Moyrac de Mailla in Twelve volumes 4to, which I just saw, but could not obtain, and I regret it daily with all the fulness of that desiderium which so dear a head as Father Moyrac de Mailla’s demands.
—Thomas James Mathias (translator), The Imperial Epistle from Kien Long, Emperor of China, to George the Third, King of Great Britain, 1796


Definition: feeling remorse or regret

Every one of us has, on some occasion, felt like we should be saying “I’m sorry,” and wished to do so ... but without actually having to utter those dread words. If you would like to say that you are sorry, or have feelings of regret or remorse, but want to do so in a fashion that is sufficiently obscure that the person to whom you are apologizing doesn’t quite understand you, then compunctious is the word for you.

He was puzzled about Agnes, whose meaning he did not divine, and he was compunctious about Jack, to whom he could not wish a lover’s reward for his trouble.
—Margaret Oliphant, Agnes, 1866


Definition: inability to identify and express or describe one’s feelings

Alexithymia is a fairly recent word, showing up in English in the mid-1970s. It is formed by combining the prefix a- (meaning “not” or “without”) with the Greek lexis (“speech”) and -thymia, (a noun combining form meaning “condition or mind and will”). It is primarily found used as a psychiatric term, and if you decide to employ it the next time you have an argument about feelings with your significant other, well, don’t blame us if it is not well received.

People who are overweight and do a lot of emotional eating are more likely to have a hard time identifying their feelings – what psychologists call alexithymia.
—R. Wolever, B. Reardon, & T. Hannan, The Mindful Diet, 2016


Definition: a state of feeling that accompanies preoccupation with trivial and insipid diversions

Leucocholy appears to be the creation of one Thomas Gray, an 18th century poet and man of letters. The earliest record (and one of the few times it has been used at all) of this word occurs in a letter written by Gray in 1742: “Mine, you are to know, is a white Melancholy, or rather Leucocholy, for the most part; which though it seldom laughs or dances, nor ever amounts to what one calls Joy or Pleasure, yet is a good easy sort of state, and ça ne laisse que de s’amuser.”

To this they owe that leucocholy which lies deep down beneath the surface gaiety of their natures, and makes the dread of the unknown the dominant note of their lives.
Percy Amaury Talbot, In the Shadow of the Bush, 1912


Definition: feeling trepidation

Many people come to our dictionary to look up the word trepidatious after having been informed by the cruel and unfeeling gods who run the spellcheck programs that it is not a word. We can inform you that yes, it is indeed a word, albeit a somewhat obscure one, and you may continue to type it, no matter how many angry red squiggles your spellchecker throws at you. There is also a verb form, trepidate, meaning “to feel trepidation.”

Thus a trepidatious Europe today remained tense, worried, fearful, for the outcome of what military men predict will be the greatest battle in the history of the world.
The Circleville Herald (Circleville, OH), 18 May 1940


Definition: shared feeling (as of joy or sorrow)

It can be pleasant to have someone with whom you may share feelings of joy, and reassuring to have someone with whom you may share your sorrows, and so it is doubly pleasing that the English language has a word which neatly covers both of these scenarios (although it should be noted that this word, compathy, appears to be primarily used in a clinical setting, in the field of mental health). Our language also has words for “shouting together with joy” (conjubilant) and, on the flip-side, a word for “a weeping with” (the definition given to collachrimation by Henry Cockeram in 1623).

But compathy is a two-edged sword. Although it may enable the provision of necessary care in the absence of a patient’s complaint, if the patient’s condition is serious, as with major trauma for example, the compathetic response may overwhelm the caregiver and disable caregiving.
—Janice M. Morse, “Qualitative Methods: The State of the Art,” Qualitative Health Research, May, 1999


Definition: vaguely uneasy, slightly indisposed

Sometimes we have need of a word that can describe the middle ground between well and unwell, and for those occasions we have the word all-overish. Although this word may also be applied to feelings of apprehension, it is its role of serving to so specifically denote a non-specific feeling that makes it useful.

“Feeling slightly perturbed?” “Why, yes, Mrs. Harcourt; I can’t say but what I was a little bit all-overish, and I felt my nose growing very red, as it always does when I get excited….”
—Anonymous, All for the Best, A Story of Quiet Life, 1861


Definition: lack of feeling or capacity for emotion

No list of words concerning itself with feelings would be complete without a word for the state of not having them. Happily, the English language is rich in words for paucity of emotion. We have heartlessness, cold-blooded, apathetic, stolid, impassivity, and a number of others. To this list we may add callosity, which may be used in either a literal sense (“abnormal hardness and thickness (as of the skin)”), or in a figurative one. It is similar in this regard to the word pachydermatous, which may mean “thick, thickened” (as is the skin of a pachyderm) or “callous.”

Such were the discussions continually passing between Lady Beauchamp and Mr. Mortimer, discussion in which the pensive widow always suffered the most; for, being of a morbidly sensitive nature, she acutely felt the sarcasms of her brother, whilst he, shielded by his callosity, was proof against her weak reprisals.
—Marguerite Gardiner, The Lottery of Life, 1857

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