“I’d like to know something about ‘mal de coucou’. I think it means something like ‘pain of the cuckoo’ (?), but I don’t see the connection between these words and the definition you gave them. Could you explain this to me?” –waveringmind (ask me a question)
Here’s the definition of mal de coucou:
n. a phenomenon in which you have an active social life but very few close friends—people who you can trust, who you can be yourself with, who can help flush out the weird psychological toxins that tend to accumulate over time—which is a form of acute social malnutrition in which even if you devour an entire buffet of chitchat, you’ll still feel pangs of hunger.
Imagine your brain is a bird’s nest. Normally, you feed your attention to real substantive relationships that can then grow and sustain themselves. In mal de coucou, that precious attention is instead swallowed up by acquaintances you don’t really relate to, like cuckoo birds. These might look like real friendships but will either fly out of the nest or leave you feeling socially malnourished. Even if you’re constantly hanging out with people.
This particular sorrow is my little riff on the French term mal de caribou, which is a kind of starvation that occurs even when you’re eating plentiful quantities of lean meat, notably rabbit and caribou. You need to do more than just chew the fat, so to speak. As an accidental bonus, coucou is also a French colloquialism for ‘hey there!’
If you’re curious, you can usually find my comments about etymology, overextended metaphors, and the finer points of emotion on the Dictionary’s facebook page.
n. the realization that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore—that although you thought you were following the arc of the story, you keep finding yourself immersed in passages you don’t understand, that don’t even seem to belong in the same genre—which requires you to go back and reread the chapters you had originally skimmed through to get to the good parts, only to learn that all along you were supposed to choose your own adventure.
n. frustration with how long it takes to get to know someone—spending the first few weeks chatting in their psychological entryway, with each subsequent conversation like entering a different anteroom, each a little closer to the center of the house—wishing instead that you could start there and work your way out, exchanging your deepest secrets first, before easing into casualness, until you’ve built up enough mystery over the years to ask them where they’re from, and what they do for a living.
n. a kind of psychological exoskeleton that can protect you from pain and contain your anxieties, but always ends up cracking under pressure or hollowed out by time—and will keep growing back again and again, until you develop a more sophisticated emotional structure, held up by a strong and flexible spine, built less like a fortress than a cluster of treehouses.
n. the kind of unnoticed excellence that carries on around you every day, unremarkably—the hidden talents of friends and coworkers, the fleeting solos of subway buskers, the slapdash eloquence of anonymous users, the unseen portfolios of aspiring artists—which would be renowned as masterpieces if only they’d been appraised by the cartel of popular taste, who assume that brilliance is a rare and precious quality, accidentally overlooking buried jewels that may not be flawless but are still somehow perfect.
n. a moment that seemed innocuous at the time but ended up marking a diversion into a strange new era of your life—set in motion not by a series of jolting epiphanies but by tiny imperceptible differences between one ordinary day and the next, until entire years of your memory can be compressed into a handful of indelible images—which prevents you from rewinding the past, but allows you to move forward without endless buffering.
n. a moment of awareness that someone you’ve known for years still has a private and mysterious inner life, and somewhere in the hallways of their personality is a door locked from the inside, a stairway leading to a wing of the house that you’ve never fully explored—an unfinished attic that will remain maddeningly unknowable to you, because ultimately neither of you has a map, or a master key, or any way of knowing exactly where you stand.