We do not have names for all the possible combinations of primary and background focuses. No one culture has a mo­nopoly on emotions, and each culture may offer its own unique feelings. As the Czech novelist Milan Kundera wrote in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: “Litost is a Czech word with no exact translation into any other language. It desig­nates… a feeling that is the synthesis of many others: grief, sympathy, remorse, and an indefinable longing…. I have never found an equivalent in other languages for this sense of the word either, though I do not see how anyone can under­stand the human soul without it.” Only by referring to several points of focus, several inner contexts, can Kundera suggest the quality of litost, a “state of torment caused by a sudden insight into one’s own miserable self” (1981, pp. 121,122).

Why have we only the names for feelings that we have in English? Why should our set of feeling names vary from the “inventions” of feeling names in Arabic or in German? Ed­ward Sapir has noted that codified discriminations of vari­ous sights, sounds, and tastes vary culturally. The names for emotions also vary culturally.

We have names for many ways of focusing on the object of blame for a frustrating event: anger, resentment, rage, exas­peration, irritation, and indignation. A society with less ten­dency to attribute blame to people and objects outside the self might have fewer names for doing this. Consider for a moment the cultural and structural story behind our words pride, shame, and pity.

Pride. The word is opposite to shame (which implies focus on an outside audience) and also to guilt (which implies fo­cus on the self). There might be, though in English there are not, separate words for pride with and without a focus on an audience. There might be a special name for pride based on recognition actively bestowed by some known group (as in the case of honor), as opposed to recognition derived by im­personal means (Speier 1935). In Yiddish, the language of a highly familistic social group, there is a special word for pride in one’s family, and especially in one’s children — nachus. The focus to which the word refers is dual: “My chil­dren have done gloriously” and “I am tied to my children.” In English there is no word specifically designated for pride – in-my-children, or, for that matter, pride-in-my-community, or pride-in-my-political group.

Shame. There are “seeing rules” about being watched that correspond to systems of social control. Under control, the rule is to notice whether or not one is being watched. Under more impersonal social control, the rule is to notice imper­sonal rules and less attention is paid to the watchfulness of intimates. There may be a corresponding decline in an ac­tual focus on watchers, hence a decline in the experience of shame and a decline in the number of names for it (Benedict 1946-b).*

Pity. The phrase “take pity” came into common use with the establishment of the Christian church. The church, in turn, came to power in an age known for extreme differences in wealth and generally brutalizing conditions of life. There were, in addition, communal ties between people who were in dire need—widows, orphans, the elderly—and people who could “take pity” and provide for them. Now that almsgiving has been bureaucratized so that giver and receiver remain unknown to each other, the perceptual focus that corres­ponds to pity is less common (Allport and Odbert 1936).

As certain social conditions, habits of seeing, and namable feelings fade from a culture, others enter. In the last twenty years a group of new terms for emotional states has sur­faced. For example, “being on a bummer, being turned off, being turned on, being on a downer, being freaked out, hav­ing one’s mind blown, being high.” Many seem traceable to the 1960s drug culture. Whatever their origins, these new names for psychological states have been generalized and

* There is a corresponding poverty of namable feelings that have to do with empathy. We can focus not only on our own situation but on that of another person whose situation can vary in the ways our own can. We can feel empathetic sadness, empathetic frustration, empathetic anger, empathetic resentment, empathetic fear, empathetic guilt, empathetic anguish, and so on. Oddly, there are no separate terms for these potentially namable feelings.

adopted by a wider middle-class population, for whom their more impersonal focus on the dimension of tension relaxa­tion may serve some function.

Here, two social trends come together. With the wide­spread use of contraceptives and the legitimation of their use (“the sexual revolution”), more men and women sleep with each other in the early stages of acquaintanceship. Yet the re­sidual custom of getting to know each other before making love still makes its claims. “Psycho-babble,” as the genre has been called, may have emerged as a way to pay respects to the old custom of getting acquainted nonsexually while at the same time embracing more sexual permissiveness. Psycho­babble is ideally suited for bridging this contradiction: its terms for feeling states seem intended to reduce social dis­tance through personal revelation, but they are used in such vague and undifferentiated ways as to make the communica­tion a ritual formality, low in personal content. A couple ex­changing the confidences of psycho-babble may not be get­ting personally acquainted any faster than their parents or grandparents did, when they said less about themselves but in more revealing language. It is worth noting that the language of psycho-babble corresponds to the language of the airline personnel manual: one is an experiential guide to private oc­casions, the other a guide to commercial occasions. In com­paring namable feelings to named ones we can garner clues to the links between larger social arrangements and com­mon ways of seeing and feeling.

CHART 1. Emotion Name and the Individual’s Momentary Focus

Emotion Name

What I Want (Like)

What I Have (See I Have)

What I Approve

The Causal Agent of Event, Object

The Relation of Self to Causal Agent


“I loved X —I still

“What I don’t have,


love X now”

what is gone,




(Primary focus)


“I loved X or love

“It’s in the

X, a past

irretrievable past”


(Secondary focus)

thing” (Primary



“I want to maintain

“I have suddenly now

“I disapprove”

a good image

a bad one”


of myself”


“I want this now”

“It’s not there”; “It

(Primary focus)

could be there,

it’s not”


Focus on

“ You hit me”

“I feel as or more



powerful than


UV, LVV V-.V-. 11 Uttllllllg

and having (Frustration – secondary focus) “I want safety”

“What I see makes me unsafe”


(Same as anger)

(Same as anger)


“I don’t like this”

“I see I have this”


(Same as above)

(Same as above)


"■*” —….

me; I can or could attack”

“I see the

“I feel utterly

cause of the

powerless to do


anything about


this; X is more

“And I disapprove”


powerful than I”

“I disapprove”

“Here it is close to


me” and"I want to get away from it” (Primary focus)

“I disapprove”

“X is the cause

“And X is

of this bad

beneath me”






What I Have

The Causal Agent

The Relation of

Emotion Name

What I Want (Like)

(See I Have)

What I Approve

oj Event, Object

Self to Causal Agent


(Same as above)

(Same as above)

“I disapprove”

“The cause

“I am the cause”

of the unwanted event is bad”


(Same as above)

(Same as above)

“I am responsible

for the bad

thing” and"I want to undo it

and can’t”




“I see what I want”

“I don’t have it”


person has it” (Primary focus)


“I have claim to

“I might lose what I

“There is the

what I want”

have” or “I have lost

robber or

what is mine”



Love, liking

“I want XY”

“You give or represent to me XY”


“This other person wants X”

“This other person does not have X”


(Same as above)

(Same as above)


“I want to seem a

“I see the behavior or


particular way to others”

events are discrepant with how I want to seem to others” (Primary focus)


“I want to do right, good things”

“I have done wrong or bad things”


Only vaguely sensed “I want X”

“I don’t know if I will get X”



“I like this other


“This person is beneath me” (Liking variable)

“I see in detail the

audience of this




“I am the

“I see the

cause of

audience of

the event”

this: they are better than I”

“I don’t know”

“I don’t know”

I disapprove”

I don’t know”