January 29, 2004

igry: serendipity or glemphy?

Language Hat ranks igry as a coinage on the level of Walpole's serendipity, provoking several insightful comments on his site, including the observation that the Spanish term "vergüenza ajena" has a similar meaning, and has resulted in Spanish shame being used as a psychological term of art. This whole distributed igry thread should thus be enlightening to the philosopher José Antonio Marina, who says here that "[s]omos los únicos que sentimos 'vergüenza ajena', por eso en los libros de psicología se la conoce como 'spanish shame', vergüenza española." (Translation: "[We Spanish] are the only ones who feel 'other's shame', so that it is known in psychology texts as 'Spanish shame'.")

I wonder, by the way: are sentences of the form "We [insert ethnic group here] are the only ones who feel [insert specific emotion here]" ever true?

Inspired by Language Hat's post, Kerim Friedman at keywords.oxus.net adds a note of class to the enterprise by bringing in Bourdieu's theory of Symbolic Violence. If I understand him, this construes feelings of embarrassment as a form of violence committed by those who maintain the standards that provoke the feelings. That seems to me to get things backwards, in a characteristically French-social-theory sort of way, but I guess that's the point.

Google has already indexed this day-before-yesterday Language Log post as its first result for igry, with Francis Heaney's 12/12/2003 post (from which I learned about the word) unfairly in second place. There are 20,400 other results, but pretty much all of them seem to be in various slavic languages. So if igry is going to turn out like serendipity rather than like glemphy, we've got our work cut out for us.

[Update: here is a MonkeyFilter thread on the topic (via Language Hat).

Also, I wonder whether 'Spanish shame' is actually used -- or even has ever been used -- as a technical term in English-language psychology books. I checked the indices of two introductory texts without finding it. And the PsychINFO database (which indexes more than 8,000,000 references in "psychology and related fields" from 1840 to 2004) returns nothing for the string "Spanish shame".

It seems clear that Spanish people believe that English-speaking psychologists use the term 'Spanish shame', since Language Hat's commenter aa and the philosopher José Antonio Marina independently report the same thing, in almost the same words. But maybe it's just a sort of translingual "idée reçue"]

[Update 1/30/2004: Trevor emails that

Feeling a sense of embarrassment on behalf of someone else is expressed by the Dutch using the phrase plaatsvervangende schaamte ("place-replacing shame"). They (and cats) also probably believe that they are unique in this respect. Plaatsvervangende schaamte is very widespread in Holland and I suspect that its use goes back to the C19th. It certainly seems the kind of thing might come up with quite naturally in an intrinsically urban, bourgeois society in which curtains are commonly eschewed. Much Dutch emotional vocabulary comes from the German, but I can't think of a German equivalent.

Empiricists may look to the historical connection between Spain and the Netherlands, but in this case, my money's on innateness. Or at least, natural development from universal experience -- as usual, we can't tell the difference.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 29, 2004 06:25 PM