In a word

I’m thinking of a word. The definition is “a feeling of shock, sadness, compassion and sometimes guilty relief in response to a disaster that happens somewhere else.” It’s not “horror,” “rage,” pity,” or “sympathy.” It could be German in origin. It’s what a good chunk of the world felt after last year’s tsunami, and it’s what a goodly number of Americans are feeling now about Hurricane Katrina.

And it doesn’t exist.

People are good at making up words. The variety of creations added to the OED each year, and the number of suggestions that are rejected, prove that beyond a doubt. We even make up words without meaning to, running together utterances like “bighuge” and “goaheadand.” We have a word—emo—for “loud, emotionally charged pop-punk music.” Some of us know the word schadenfreude and aren’t afraid to use it. If we can encapsulate stuff like this, we should be able to pick a word or two to define the enhanced survivors’ guilt and horrific fascination, laced with uncharacteristic compassion, gripping so many of us.

So far, we haven’t.

Disasters happen all the time, and always have. We’re just getting better at broadcasting them all. Before the age of telegraph and radio, it was often too late to send rescue-type aid by the time bad news arrived. Today, we can get the news in an instant, but the majority of us are simply unable to give the kind of aid—airlifts, rebuilding, law and order—we perceive as most meaningful. We are isolated by distance and circumstance, so we send money, and watch, and hope. The more we are able to watch, the more we need a word for what’s making us watch. So everybody who’s working on the projects for how to write “whole nother” and finding the modern negative of “used to,” you have a new assignment. Due date: next disaster.

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