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.
“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
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.
–John (ask me a question)
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.
n. a conversation in which everyone is talking but nobody is listening, simply overlaying disconnected words like a game of Scrabble, with each player borrowing bits of other anecdotes as a way to increase their own score, until we all run out of things to say.
n. the sadness that you’ll never really know what other people think of you, whether good, bad or if at all—that although we reflect on each other with the sharpness of a mirror, the true picture of how we’re coming off somehow reaches us softened and distorted, as if each mirror was preoccupied with twisting around, desperately trying to look itself in the eye.
icharos asked: “I think you could make a living creating words to describe such deeply intimate sorrows. It would be like going to a doctor but instead of prescribing medication, you give the torment a name, and suddenly tangled emotions fall neatly into place and with that quiet word, you can breathe.”
Beautiful idea, and my dream job. I think the act of naming something implies, very simply, that you’re not alone. We give names to things so we can talk about them. Once there’s a word for an experience, it feels contained somehow—and the container has a handle, which makes it much easier to pick up and pass around. Kinda comforting.
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