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


One of the most terrifying things about the Great Pestilence that swept Europe in 1348—49 must have been sensing it approach. It snaked across the land, wrote the Welsh poet Jeuan Gethin in 1349, like a “rootless phantom.” Pilgrims and travelers spread news of desolate streets and wretched survivors. Cities locked their gates and their inhabitants performed desperate acts of penitence. Jews were blamed for poisoning wells. Serving girls imprisoned for deliberately infecting clothes. Nothing made a difference. Some chroniclers reported that across Europe as many as nine in every ten people perished. Such reports were almost certainly exaggerated, but many believed they were witnessing the world’s end, God’s retribution for earthly sin.

If you hadn’t already been touched by the disease, there was nothing to do but wait.

It is often said that the phrase “black death” comes from the dark blotches that discolored the skin of the infected. More likely it is a translation of the Latin atra morsmors (death), atra (dark, squalid or ill fated): the dreaded end.

Unlike fear or panic, which is usually triggered by an immediate threat, dread is the cold unease felt in the approaching shadow of a menace about which we can do little. In its earliest uses, dread described a feeling of being rendered speechless and prostrate in the presence of God’s awesome power (see: WONDER). This religious meaning continued into the early twentieth century, which is why Rastafarians dubbed themselves Dreads, and their matted hair, dreadlocks. But what to some is appropriate reverence, for others is a kind of defeatism. In his account of the outbreaks of the plague in fourteenth-century Florence, Giovanni Boccaccio lamented the “bestial behavior” and APATHY the epidemic caused. Peasants abandoned their animals and crops. Some men wandered through the empty houses, stealing food and drink, or spent their days and nights in taverns gambling away their belongings. In this atmosphere of foreboding, society’s rules were made futile.

In the age of the Internet, mild dread may be a low-level hum for us all. Today’s air travel allows epidemics to spread so rapidly that an approaching disease feels less like the drifting of a “rootless phantom” than a game of hopscotch played across the globe. It’s harder than ever to remain ignorant each time a new pandemic—AIDS, bird flu, Ebola—appears. And since dread can feed off rumor and misinformation, the Internet provides the ideal petri dish (see also: CYBERCHONDRIA). Some might panic and start stockpiling drugs, while governments conduct health checks at our borders. But for most of us there is little option but to sink backwards into a cold, gluey helplessness—and hope it doesn’t come too near.

See also: PANIC.