Junk Drawer Definitions

“Words carry small oceans on their backs,” or so novelist Lidia Yuknavitch said, and what is that other quote…words are kingdoms? Quotes aside, words have power, and I’d like to share some of my recent favorites…

That earthy smell after a heavy rain, following months of dry sun—not sure how to capture it? That liminal, precious scent is called petrichor. A “pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather,” “petrichor” is rooted in the Greek word petra, meaning “stone,” as well as ichõr, the fluid that ran through the veins of the ancient Greek gods.

Drapetomania, now recognized as an element of scientific racism, was the “mental illness” explaining enslaved people’s tendency to escape captivity. Coined in 1851 by American physician Samuel Cartwright, it’s rooted in the Greek words drapetes, “a runaway,” and mania, categorized as a delusional, euphoric state. The “cure” was the removal of both large toes. Clearly what’s crazy is the cultural rationalization of violent retribution, to an appropriate human response to captivity and degradation.

When you shut your eyes, or press your head into the pillow and see traveling bands or streaks of light, colors, and shapes beneath your lids—these are phosphenes. Defined as “a ring or spot of light produced by pressure on the eyeball or direct stimulation of the visual system other than by light,” this word is also formed from the Greek words phõs, meaning “light,” and phainein, meaning “to show.” 

Trypophobia is an aversion to the sight of irregular patterns or clusters of small holes, or bumps, according to Wikipedia. Not medically recognized as a mental disorder or by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and coined in 2005, it’s understanding is shallow. As trypophobia shapes mirror the shapes of disease, does this so-called aversion have an evolutionary explanation? Researchers aren’t sure yet. 

When you can’t find the words to describe how you’re feeling—there’s a word for that: alexithymia. It’s a psychiatric term coining a personality component when a person is disabled from identifying and expressing their thoughts and feelings. It’s a relatively new word, coming about in the 1970s and derived from the Greek word, Lexis, meaning “speech.” 

The compulsion to dance in order to overcome melancholy or hurt: tarantism. Once believed to be the result of a certain tarantula bite, it was commonly used in Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries. Once known as the dancing illness, the term has since expanded to mean dancing to fend off melancholy.

Who doesn’t love a good word? A good word is like an amazingly good meal, it surprises me every time, leaves me oddly happy, and, on occasion, makes my heart speed up. Is there a word for that? Hopefully. 

Cited definitions sourced from Google and Wikipedia (Greek and Latin).

By Josephine Wallace