Also, I had a terrible grasp of irregular verbs.
July 11, 2011 4:57 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for a word, and I don't think it is one in English. Articulate mefites of all stripes, step right up.

I need a word to describe a particular sort of experience. It is somewhere in the triangle delineated by "nostalgia," "hopefulness," and wabi, the Japanese term for the imperfections that make something better than if it were nominally perfect (wabi is why you pay more for a hand-stitched rug than for a perfectly manufactured machine-made one).

Recently, I found an audio cassette which I had made at an early age with my tape recorder*. There were popular songs on the radio that I enjoyed at the time, and it seemed to me then the easiest way to have ready access to them was to wait patiently for a radio station to play them, then hold the microphone of my tape recorder to the speaker and hit RECORD; hence a collection of low-res pop hits of the era, all missing their first two bars.

I recall being very determined not to clutter these recordings up with room noise, and so being very careful not to speak, as well as shushing others who walked into the room. However, listening to these thing yesterday, I found myself deriving the most enjoyment from the flubs, and looking forward to the moments when I could hear this child who I used to be talking (at one point with the tape still recording, the young biscuit mutters, "I think I rewinded it too far").

The only other time I have run across something similar is when I am watching videocassettes of something taped off television -- with my first VCR in the eighties, I did my best to remove the commercials from Star Trek:The Next Generation or whatever I taped then, but when I have occasionally watched these things since, the commercials are often the interesting bits: dubious ads for long-forgotten products, breathless commercials for absolute flops of movies, PSAs that would never get shown today, station identification for long-since-rebranded stations. Anyone who has seen the bootleg of the Star Wars Holiday Special can identify with this.

I mentioned the cassette experience to one or two people, this quietly hoping for mistakes, but I find it hard to articulate the experience save in terms of examples. Can anyone supply me with a clearer way to explain this? Coinages are welcome... I suppose Fehlerhoffnung in German might get close, but that is just off the cuff.

*Of course, to play a nearly-forty-year-old cassette, I had to use the more-than-twenty-year-old Walkman I also discovered. So it goes.
posted by ricochet biscuit to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
This is probably not the word you are thinking of, but "patina" fits the theme. IE, one person's tarnish is another person's beauty.
posted by gjc at 5:02 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Two words: "wax poetic"
posted by ~Sushma~ at 5:46 AM on July 11, 2011

posted by alms at 5:52 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

It sounds closer to nostalgia the way you tell it. "aquired authenticity" or "patina" might connote the object, but you're looking to name your reaction; Is there perhaps a better fitting antonym?
posted by monocultured at 5:54 AM on July 11, 2011

A negative version would be "kitsch."
posted by outlandishmarxist at 5:57 AM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: A word that refers obliquely to this haunting and poignant feeling, for me, is pentimento. In the context of fine art, it refers to an earlier version of a painted canvas that can still be detected under the new painting. But the word is also used in other contexts.

What you're describing comes close to the feel of pentimento in painted ads. Here's an example: Ad pentimento. The ghostly remnants of what was supposed to be covered carry more emotional weight than the intended message.
posted by ROTFL at 6:01 AM on July 11, 2011 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Perhaps mono no aware would cover at least part of your requirements.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:05 AM on July 11, 2011

Pentimento is going to be my word of the week, nice. But isn't it interpreted more as "original ambition" or somesuch? The dictionary traces it to "repentance" so it sounds more lite "naïve intent" more than something valuable lost.
posted by monocultured at 6:09 AM on July 11, 2011

Mono no aware might be it, and there's a related Latin term linked from that Wikipedia page: Lacrimæ rerum. Is Latin kosher to use in general discussion, or will someone clip your ear?
posted by monocultured at 6:16 AM on July 11, 2011

You know, a really literal translation of lacrimae rerum is "object tears" (res / rerum isn't strictly limited to physical objects, but it might be close enough). It might work as an expression for what you're trying to get at.
posted by nangar at 6:45 AM on July 11, 2011

Could you describe what exactly you mean by the "hopefulness" constraint? Hopeful for the future? Hopeful to create a beautiful object?
posted by trevyn at 7:23 AM on July 11, 2011

This is a great question. I'm reminded of Roland Barthes' idea of the "punctum" here -- the meaning that pierces the viewer with idiosyncrasy and nostalgia. From wikipedia, a decent explanation:
"Barthes explained that a picture creates a falseness in the illusion of ‘what is’, where ‘what was’ would be a more accurate description. As had been made physical through [his mother] Henriette Barthes's death, her childhood photograph is evidence of ‘what has ceased to be’. Instead of making reality solid, it reminds us of the world’s ever changing nature. Because of this there is something uniquely personal contained in the photograph of Barthes’s mother that cannot be removed from his subjective state: the recurrent feeling of loss experienced whenever he looks at it."
posted by Tylwyth Teg at 7:26 AM on July 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oh man, I know this feeling. Some of the songs I have on my computer are taken from my vinyl, with the odd pops and clicks, and that 33 1/3 rpm pulsing you get. I'm not replacing them with with 'clean' mp3. And I remember going through some New Yorkers from the '50s, and the most interesting thing was the small ads near the back. Local breweries, long-gone restaurants, etc.

I can identify three different elements:

- the appeal of imperfections
- the appeal of old things
- the appeal of your childhood.

What you're describing seems like a perfect convergence of these three.

I don't have a good term for this combination, but I will throw out one for the first appeal: "the smell of the real". I came across it in the novel "The Pornographers" (Wikipedia page for the film). It's kind of the antithesis of the amazing coincidences, clock-work interlocking, and just plain implausible cleanness you see in the most contrived fiction. In real life, sometimes the guy at the corner is readjusting his underwear.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:30 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hmm... that right there is a pretty good description of the feeling you're trying to convey. I'm not sure there's a word that exactly captures all of it. 'Reminiscing', I think, conveys some of it. Maybe 'wistful', but that's somewhat on the sadder side.
posted by losvedir at 7:33 AM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: I've always called it "accidental nostalgia"—in the sense of "nostalgia of accidents" as much as "unintentional nostalgia of things that weren't intended."

I use it very similarly to you, mostly to refer to the fact that the grainy, pan-and-scanned versions of Alien and the fragments of commercials/time i hit record 20 seconds late from the ABC airing of Jaws are the canonical versions for me.
posted by Brainy at 8:01 AM on July 11, 2011

A tangent: I bet you'd dig the Found Footage Festival.
posted by glibhamdreck at 8:46 AM on July 11, 2011

If these focus on personal memories, they sound a bit like Proustian moments. Which psychologists call involuntary memory.
posted by carter at 8:49 AM on July 11, 2011

When I see or hear or read a younger self, my heart breaks for them because they didn't know then what I know now that makes my life more easily borne and navigated through.

Perhaps you are feeling deep, deep sympathy?
posted by TheRedArmy at 10:19 AM on July 11, 2011

> You know, a really literal translation of lacrimae rerum is "object tears"

No it's not, it's "the tears of things," which you might try if you're reluctant to use "lacrimæ rerum" (which once upon a time was well known in educated circles, but probably not so much now, and let me tell you about my lawn and kids today...).
posted by languagehat at 10:41 AM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: You're looking for something so specific that I sort of doubt you'll find a perfect hit.

You might find interesting "saudade", a Portuguese word roughly translatable as "nostalgia for a thing that may once have been, but can never be again".
posted by foursentences at 12:11 PM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Could you describe what exactly you mean by the "hopefulness" constraint? Hopeful for the future? Hopeful to create a beautiful object?

Hopefulness that the young me would make more flubs and leave a bit more evidence of who he was. Hearing a tinny low-res version of "Seasons in the Sun" or "You're So Vain" is nothing; hearing the young me talking candidly is something else totally.

When I read things I wrote a year ago or a decade or twenty-five years ago, or see video images or photographs of the young adult me, I recall exactly where I was, what I was doing and thinking. When I am looking at the six-year-old me, I have almost no idea what was going on there. I have none of my childhood toys, a few photos and nothing I wrote (no old letters or school projects or anything). It is the odd that the person I used to be seems to be someone totally different. To catch those unguarded moments of that stranger's childhood knowing he will someday be me is odd.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:12 PM on July 11, 2011

Ooh, I like that 'saudade'. And with the fake brazilian accent I like to use, it sounds like 'sow-dadjh', which even sounds slightly mournful.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:06 PM on July 11, 2011

Dented memento?
posted by buzzv at 12:26 AM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

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