Tuesday, October 18, 2011

English Language A Pain When It Comes To Describing Pain

With more than 988,000 words in the English language (according to the Global Language Monitor), one would be justified in assuming that there would me more than enough to describe any situation, feeling or item.  Yet, in the Inuit, English & Sami languages, there are several hundred words to describe one English word: snow.  For most of us, that one word is sufficient, yet, the further north we go, the greater the need for better descriptors of the white stuff.  Situations often demand better vocabulary options than the language offers.

Recently, my doctor asked me to describe the level of pain that he understood me to be experiencing with a torn shoulder tendon.  “On a scale of one to ten…” he suggested.  I could not rank my experience in that manner.  In fact, his interpretation of pain was radically different from mine.

Pain is one of those words that is completely inadequate  in the English language.

A few years ago, I had a tooth that was not decaying, but had some nerve damage and slowly was loosening.  On a daily basis, I experienced significant discomfort, but it was not a classic toothache.  It did not “ache.”  However, from time to time, in addition to the discomfort, the nerve would be agitated, and a sharp sensation would knife through my jaw.  Still, to me, it was not pain.

In 1986, I sliced sixteen tendons, the nerves, artery and vein in my left arm.  During the healing process, my doctor prescribed high-power painkillers.  I never used one, as I did not feel that I was in severe pain.  My arm throbbed constantly, and, to this day, my hand feels like it is being pinched in a set of vise-grips. However, my wife was experiencing intense headaches, and used up the entire prescription, with only moderate effect.

In 1972, in the last years before my mother died of cancer, the hospital attempted to have her accept her morphine to alleviate the pain of the illness.  She refused, stating that she wanted to wait until the pain was sufficiently severe.  She felt that using the medication too early would make the painkiller less effective as the last stages of the disease ravaged her.  She died, never reaching the stage where she would accept the morphine.

I have had numerous broken bones, none of which gave me pain, yet all of which induced some inconvenience, with unusual stabs reminiscent of being sliced with a utility knife.

Headaches are different from bruises, while the flu or a severe cold is different again, from a basic headache.

A strained muscle is very unpleasant, but is the pain of the strain equivalent to a deep cut?  How about the unpleasant experience of a paper cut?

Pain extends to the emotional, as well.  A relationship breakup is different from the death of a loved one, yet both bring great pain, and heartache.

Back to my doctor’s query.  On a scale of one to ten?  Well, the shoulder hurts, but my arm laceration was more severe.  So, it cannot be a 10.  The chronic nature of my tooth problem was more aggravating than the arm laceration, so down the scale a notch goes the shoulder.  I have worked for weeks with broken bones, not understanding that they were broken, but knowing that they hurt considerably.  Prolonged and fairly intense, they relegate the toothache down the line.  My mother’s experience with the rot of cancer, no doubt, dwarfs the broken bones.  Again, move the shoulder further back in the line.  I have seen the intense pain that the death of my wife’s aunt caused. Obviously, the anguish of the sudden death eclipses the slow evolution of my mother’s.  Once again, my shoulder takes a backward step.

 So, on a scale of one to ten?  Probably a minus one.  Not because the shoulder feels fine.  It feels far from it.  A minus one, because I cannot claim that the shoulder discomfort is painful, and cannot rank it against other, more serious pains. 

We need more words to describe pain, because this torn shoulder is causing me a good deal of inconvenience, and the inconvenience is a pain in the butt.  An 11 on a scale of 1 to 10.


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