Anecdoche: A conversation in which everyone is talking, but nobody is listening

Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 8 Sep 2022, 5:45 PM

A college professor friend told me a fascinating story the other day. It seems that young, impressionable female students sometimes convince themselves they are in love with their teachers, and usually teachers are able to gently disabuse them of such ideas by their own correct and professional demeanour. But one English teacher friend came up against an unusual challenge.

It started one day after class, when he received a WhatsApp message from one of his brightest students. “I think I suffer from cingulomania when it comes to you,” it read. He was taken aback, first, because this was not a word he was familiar with in a long career of English teaching. Intrigued, he looked it up, and was even more taken aback. It meant “an irresistible desire to hold someone in your arms”. There was even a hit song by that name by Yoko Ono!

He replied calmly, telling her such messages were not appropriate. Swift came her reply: “Sir, you suffer from Myötähäpeä.” Now even more taken aback and forced to look it up, he discovered “Myötähäpeä: (n.) the feeling of shame or embarrassment you experience on behalf of another person or a character when they do something stupid”. Now quite cross with her for her effrontery, he responded, “and why am I supposed to feel any shame?” It’s not just shame, she responded, “it’s also embarrassment. And didn’t you get embarrassed when I said I felt cingulomania for you?”

Defeated, the professor decided he would not encourage this exchange any further. But within a few minutes there popped up another message on his mobile phone: “Sir, it’s clear you’re suffering from Alexithymia, and I’m not.”

Intrigued despite himself — this was now the third word his student was using that he didn’t know — the professor turned to his trusted dictionary once more. He learned that Alexithymia was “an inability to describe emotions in a verbal manner”. Offended, he replied stiffly: “I have no difficulty expressing myself on any subject, thank you.”

He could almost hear her giggling as she messaged back: “Not true, Prof! When it comes to me you’re always struggling.” He took a deep breath. Soon enough this was followed by: “I’m sorry about your Alexithymia and Myötähäpeä. Doesn’t affect my affections in the least, though.”

“This has ceased to be funny,” he wrote in his most professorial manner. “I really must ask you to stop this line of conversation forthwith. You are one of my best students. Don’t spoil our relationship with this prattle.”

“Prof, I can’t help myself,” the student replied. “I’m really a Nefelibata.” At this point the professor, more appalled by his own ignorance than the girl’s forwardness, went online. “The Portuguese word Nefelibata literally translates as Cloud Walker,” he read. “To be nefelibata means to think and live outside of preconceived boxes, to be true to your heart, and to follow your own path.”

The professor had never thought of the girl as anything but a brilliant young student, and so he thought the best way to defuse his mounting concern about this conversation was to pay her back in her own coin. “You need to learn about the importance of Tazenda,” he wrote. Tazenda referred to “things better left unsaid; matters to be passed on in silence”.

But she was back soon enough: “When I’m sitting in the front row of your class, I just want to wallow in opia.” The professor knew of “myopia”, but not of “opia”. With a sigh, he looked it up too: “Opia: the ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable.” He started feeling uncomfortable, recalling her devoted gaze in his classroom, which he had thought was just a serious student paying attention. “Please stop,” he wrote.

“Sir, why do suffer from Mauerbauertraurigkeit?” She asked. He turned wearily online. She was accusing him of “the inexplicable urge to push people away, even close friends who you really like”.

This had to end. “Stop, he said. There is no point participating in an anecdoche.” He believed she would get the message that this was “a conversation in which everyone is talking, but nobody is listening.” He is still waiting for her reply.

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The richness of accent: Bane or blessing?

Like any other language, English has changed over time. The accent in which it is spoken is key to how someone is viewed, influenced by many factors: country or region of origin, social and educational background, working environment, friends, and your own sense of identity