Saturday 14 July 2012

No words

I have a question. Why are there things we have no word for, things that really clearly exist? We have words for things which might or might not exist (ghosts, angels, Higgs bosons), and for things which don't exist (unicorns, July sunshine). But then there are big things that are unnameable.

We have a word for a widow and a widower, a word for an orphan, but no word for a parent who has lost their child. Why? Is it because this state is so awful, too awful to contemplate, that we daren't have a word for it? I feel anxious even asking the question. In medieval France, people didn't use the word 'bear'  - they said 'bruin' (the brown one). If they spoke the bear's name, they feared, it would seem as if they were calling him and he would come.

I knew a novelist once who wanted to write about a paraplegic character. He went to a specialist in wheelchairs and other equipment his character might have used (this was before the days of the web) and they gave him lots of brochures. He threw them all away before he got home. He didn't dare to carry them, as if they were some kind of 'eat me' label inviting disasters to see him as fair game. It's not the same as not having a word for things, but perhaps it's related.

Or maybe there is a word and I just don't know it. Do other languages have a word for this terrible state?

No words. I have no words for the couple whose fate prompted this post, for the incident which has touched my family too closely and them with such devastation. I am a writer - I am supposed to have words. But they are inadequate to express the grief and horror of what has happened. Similarly, there are never good enough words to describe love, or sex, or terror, or pain, or bliss. I don't mean literary expression here, but words you can say to someone in normal discourse. I will try - they won't be good enough. Words fail me. Words fail all of us, though, if we don't even have a word.


  1. There is a Pennsylvania Dutch word "zeitlang" which comes close to the meaning of having lost a child.
    There are also words in some indigenous Australian languages which express the concept but not the emotion. (They tend to be "big word" languages where one word may mean an entire sentence in English.) When two strangers met they would go through a ritual to find out how they were related to one another so finding out about deceased children could be very important.
    Whatever the emotional concept is absolutely horrendous - I feel for you!

  2. Words will fail you - of course they will. I don't suppose any language has words that fill this void.

    But you can be there. Cook them meals. Offer to do shopping. Buy wine. Walk down the street with them as they have to cope with those who cannot bear what has happened turn away (yes, it will happen.) Go into cafes and if they have to leave their coffee undrunk just walk out as if it is the most natural thing in the world. And if they talk about their child, then talk about him/her with them. All that is worth much more than words.

  3. Very sad - and no words to offer either.

    The words and phrases that are there always sound like a bad and overused script when I've needed them.

  4. There's probably nothing worse than a child going before you. They must be so numb. My heart goes out to them. Here in Portugal there's a word, "saudade" and there's no equivalent in English. It means missing something with a terrible longing.

  5. I think this is why we tell stories. Because if there was a word for every situation, we would just say the word and the situation would be described. But life is too complicated for words and so we must tell stories.

    And the problem is, too, that if there were a word for the awfulness your friends are going through, people would use it for lesser things and then its power would go. That has happened with so many words - we become desensitised by their over-use, but we can never become desensitised to stories well told.

  6. I'd struggle to describe any word that would instantly describe the grief of a parent who lost their child. Maybe it's right that there isn't a word to single it out. Perhaps the constant reminder of that word would just be too painful for a parent to live with.