The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


You smell sour milk and your nose wrinkles. You accidentally touch dog poo and your gorge rises as you rush to the nearest tap to scrub your hands. A frothy slick of spit floating in a glass of water makes it impossible to drink. It’s this quick-as-a-flash electric current, running from noxious substance to revolted feeling, that makes disgust so fascinating. You encounter a poison and your body refuses it. It’s simple. As instinctive as the way your eyelid snaps shut when a fleck of hot oil from a pan jumps toward it. Disgust might seem to be a hyperefficient and practical emotion, a simple, lifesaving 2 + 2 = 4. But little is further from the truth.

The idea that every person—whether living in the Australian outback or an apartment in Tokyo—shares a handful of emotional expressions is compelling. When evolutionary psychologists talk of “universal basic emotions,” they mean that our bodies have all evolved in the same way to help us survive universal predicaments, like needing to run away from predators (fear), or scare off rivals (anger). Without these physiological responses preparing us for fighting or fleeing, we simply couldn’t survive. Disgust is a prime candidate for a universal emotion: everyone seems to make retching noises and stick out their tongue when they are disgusted; everyone wrinkles their nose. Though not everyone agrees which emotions should be thought of as “basic” or “universal,” disgust is always on the list, a workhorse of an emotion, forcing poisons out of our bodies and preventing them from infecting us.

However, this claim is misleading. To start with, there are at least three types of revulsion, each with distinctive responses. “Core disgust” is repulsion felt when something poisonous—usually rotten flesh or feces—comes near the mouth. It makes us recoil from the object, feel nauseous and make emetic sounds: blegh, yuck, ugh, nghm. “Contamination disgust” is felt near people or places that threaten infection. It’s there when your skin crawls on entering a home that has not been washed or cleaned in years (don’t touch anything!); it makes us shudder or feel reluctant even to sit down in case we are infected. The sight of someone’s mouth gaping to reveal stringy saliva and gooey remnants of food, or of a bloody wound, prompts another sort of repulsion, what psychologists inelegantly term “body-envelope violation disgust,” in which the threat of contamination is combined with an almost existential horror of the open body. The fact that each has different cues and responses suggests they developed along separate evolutionary paths. It would be hard to claim that one is more “basic” than the other.

More than this, so much of what prompts disgust is open to cultural interference. The boiled duck embryos eaten fresh from the egg as street food in the Philippines sicken most Western tourists. Even our responses to things we are apparently “hardwired” to find disgusting, feces or weeping wounds, depend on context. Modern-day surgeons talk of the “laudable pus” that erupts from a lanced boil (the term is a remnant from medieval humoral medicine). It may have a foul smell and texture—never mind its name; just saying “laudable pus” is enough to make me balk—but it’s a welcome sight in the surgery because of the relief it brings the patient. “Dirt is matter out of place,” was anthropologist Mary Douglas’s summation of this problem of perspective. What we find filthy and contaminating, and therefore disgusting, is primarily a matter of what we happen to think being “in place” is.

The sense that something is “out of place” might be more important to provoking feelings of disgust than the objectively dangerous. We’re all familiar with those odd little glitches, where the stomach heaves in response to some object we know can’t hurt us. The hair in the mouth, or the skin on a mug of hot milk, or the soup clinging to a man’s beard (just the thought of it!) that might make us bilious. So much that we find disgusting is connected to the accidentally wrongly placed; it might be no surprise to find that it’s this problem of categories breaking down that lies at the heart of how the word in English came to develop.

Early moderns didn’t talk of disgust. They spoke instead of the abomination felt at the spectacle of a “freak,” or when crossing paths with a “witch”—an abhorrence felt toward those perceived out of the natural order of things. Historians have uncovered a tendency at this time to speak of things or people who were morally disgusting as abominable or abhorrent, while for those that were rotten or stomach-churning a much older English word, wlatsome, tended to be used (it meant loathsome or detestable, and was likely to have been pronounced wlat-some). Instead of “yuck!” or “ugh!” early moderns said “fie!” and “fum!” This may be why the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk booms “Fee, fi, fo, fum!”: not out of anger, as has sometimes been suggested, but because the blood of his enemies, the English, smells rotten to him.

It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that disgust as we know it entered the scene, sweeping up all kinds of aversions and repulsions behind it. Philosophers including Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke popularized the word, from the Italian gusto (taste). Their disgust was primarily an aesthetic response to all that was misshapen, messy and ugly, the antithesis of Enlightenment sensibility. In a matter of only a few decades, feeling “abhorrence” began to sound old-fashioned, and “disgust” took over as the emotion that would single you out as a person of high class and learning. From this, disgust became a bloated concept, swallowing everything that did not quite fit—from the sight of something coming out of the wrong hole at the wrong time, to a badly turned vase, to inappropriate behavior.

Appropriately for an emotion concerned so much with liminality, disgust still carries this capaciousness. For instance we still speak of feeling disgusted by moral transgressions too. Though Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells probably doesn’t feel the urge to vomit on hearing of the council’s latest travesty vis-à-vis his favorite parking spot, there are moments when our senses of moral indignation and physical revulsion do overlap. In the late 1980s psychologists Paul Rozin and Carol Nemeroff conducted a peculiar experiment. They asked a group of research subjects if they would be willing to wear a pullover—most said they would. Then they added that the pullover had once belonged to Adolf Hitler. With this extra bit of news, the majority of the participants grimaced and moved away from the garment, refusing to wear it and appearing revolted and making the associated responses of “ugh” and “ew.” Rozen and Nemeroff suggested that somewhere in their imaginations, the participants had feared being contaminated by some essence of “Hitlerishness” that made them recoil from the thought of the material touching their skin. In cases like these, it’s clear that disgust operates far beyond the simple poison = disgust equation. It bursts its own seams, infecting our moral judgments and aesthetic tastes too.

Look close enough, then, and disgust will not be quietly reduced down to a single emotional atom, a “basic emotion” alert and ready to leap to our protection. What we speak of as “disgust” describes so many different kinds of responses—the vomitous feeling of opening the fridge and seeing rotten meat, the skin-crawling sensation that makes you not want to pick up someone’s snotty hankie, the feeling of nauseated horror on seeing a person’s skin flapping open, even a feeling of moral queasiness. As with so many of our emotions, it’s not easy to tell where disgust begins and ends. It might shade into the squirming glee of scatological humor. Or be part of what makes certain fetishes so exciting (see: MORBID CURIOSITY). And since being too full can make us feel revolted—not only with the idea of any more food, or TV, or whatever we’ve indulged too much in, but also with ourselves—disgust is often linked to BOREDOM. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that some have felt the urge to pin down this most slippery emotion. After all, disgust arises more powerfully when boundaries dissolve, meaning breaks down and things slide “out of place.”