Missing Word #5

There should be a word for the kind of frustration one feels when one is babbling along in a foreign language with confidence and ease, then suddenly falls into a deep hole of tongue-tiedness because the most perfect, à propos word in their native language simply doesn’t exist in this language.

This particular brand of frustration I’m referring to combines:

  1. feelings of inadequacy, because even though you have good vocabulary and grammar in the given language, you’re completely stumped as to how to translate the word.
  2. feelings of resentment — Why do the French not have this word? Are they doing this on purpose? How could they live without this word, and thus, thus concept?
  3. feelings of disappointment… there’s a good chance that this big blank in my sentence, mixed with my frustration, will mark the end of whomever was listening to me, listening to me. When I hit one of these missing words, I am often thrown off track enough that my thought goes veering off a cliff.

If anyone has any suggestions for this new word that needs to be invented, I would love to hear them. I’m not sure that inventing words is one of my fortés (except in Boggle when they’re already spelled out for you). But I can give it a whirl, I suppose. Vocafreeztration? Too long, perhaps. Exasexpressation? Too hard to say. Blurtferk? Now, maybe…

Ironically, this post was supposed to be about a different missing word: one that I never knew I would feel so strongly about until I tried in vain to translate it, time after time after time. It’s not sexy, it’s not funny, it’s self-conscious. Yup, that’s the word. Self-conscious. Aside from probably realizing that it was a word that applied to me in certain circumstances, I never paid attention to this word.

But living in France, being in romantic relationships in France, going to therapy in France, it turns out I have needed this word more than once. My (French) friend MG, who speaks killer English, recently confirmed for me (in case I just hadn’t stumbled upon the French translation in my 16 years here) that ça n’existe pas. In fact, MG was quite passionate telling us about the moment she happened upon the word self-conscious. It was huge for her. There was suddenly a commonly-recognized word for something she’d felt a million times in her life without ever having an easy way to name it! Great relief flooded into her.

I suppose the relief she felt was proportionate to the frustration I feel when I am faced with the awful truth that, while there are plenty of self-conscious Americans, no one in France is self-conscious. They are timide (shy), they are gêné (embarrassed, uncomfortable), embarassé (awkward) or paranoïac (paranoid) but they just aren’t self-conscious. sigh.

I like definition #2 of self-conscious from Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary: “uncomfortably conscious of oneself as an object of the observation of others…”. The word “observation” is key. And given the state of affairs on social media platforms, the proliferation of selfies and everything in the “selfie” category, I fear that self-consciousness is not about to go extinct.

Yet “self-conscious” first appeared in the 1680’s, during the English Enlightenment—before cell-phones, cameras, and before most people had mirrors in their homes I imagine, yet still, enough people were feeling it to merit inventing a word for it!

The Wikipedia entry for “self-conscious” gave me some helpful clues to thinking about my own tendency to be this way: “Some people are habitually more self-conscious than others. Unpleasant feelings of self-consciousness are sometimes associated with shyness or paranoia.”  Aha! I know something about both of those!


Truth be told, while the word “self-conscious” is (unfortunately) useful in my world, I don’t take much pleasure in using it — I’d much prefer not to need it at all. As compared to Missing Words #1, #2 or #3 which I find fabulous and without which life just isn’t the same, I don’t exactly revel in being self-conscious, or needing to name the state. However, there’s no denying that it’s useful, for the time being. As long as we humans harp on our individuality, our separateness, our image, while at the same time projecting our fears and self-judgement onto others, we’ll be needing the term. As long as ego rides shotgun, we’re in for more joyrides with this unique mixture of shyness/paranoia/awkwardness/embarrassment/malaise/hyper-vigilance, so we might as well have a word we agree on.

2 thoughts on “Missing Word #5

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