The Washington Post

Gene takes a page from Ben Schott and identifies unnamed phenomena

(Eric Shansby)

I am reading “Schottenfreude,” a new book by Ben Schott in which he identifies familiar phenomena that don’t have names, but should. Then he invents one for each, in elaborate German. For example, “Eisenbahnscheinbewegung” is “the false sensation of movement when, looking out from a stationary train, you see another train depart.”

Interestingly, just about every unnamed phenomenon in the book makes me think of at least one more. Clearly, our language is woefully deficient.

Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated. View Archive

Ben: Stepping down heavily on a stair that isn’t there.

Me: The disorienting sensation you get when stutter-stepping onto or off a broken escalator. (I first identified and wrote about this experience 20 years ago; it has since become the subject of scientific studies involving electroencephalograms, control groups and standard deviations.)

Ben: Sneaking sly looks at the physically disabled.

Me: Elaborately pretending to scan the entire population of a bus or Metro car so that, without arousing suspicion or giving offense, you can momentarily scope out the hottie.

Ben: Returning to your old school and finding that everything feels so small.

Me: Attending a high school or college reunion and feeling sorry for all the others, who seem so old, followed by a moment’s pause, followed by a dawning sense of horror.

Ben: The smug self-satisfaction of those behind the wheel of a vintage car.

Me: The smug self-satisfaction of those who pronounce ordinary words pretentiously, such as “vahze” or “ ON-deeve” or “ma-toor” or “neg-oh-see-ate.” Or, God help us all, “foy-YAY.” (In a related development, I propose that henceforth the word “pretentious” be pronounced “pre-ten-see-ous.”)

Ben: The usually futile attempt to return to the plot of a dream after having been woken.

Me: The always futile attempt to return to the plot of a sexy dream after having been woken.

Ben: That awkward feeling of discovering an indecipherable note in your own handwriting.

Me: That awkward feeling, drenched in the shame of betrayal, when you momentarily lose track of the game and find that you have mistakenly cheered a development that was, in fact, bad for your team.

Ben: The pressure to make bantering small talk with people you interact with every day.

Me: When you see a crazy person talking to himself, only to realize it is a Bluetooth conversation, and then feeling not relief but disappointment.

Ben: The god-awful mediocrity of organized fun.

Me: The split-second of dread, and butt-clenching panic, accompanied by silent prayer, when, nearing the end of a way-too-long business meeting, the boss asks if anyone has anything else.

Ben: Feeling that the thermometer is still under your tongue after it’s been removed.

Me: That weird, electric, full-body, quasi-sexual shudder-thrill you sometimes experience at the apex of a big stretch.

Ben: Pretending you haven’t been accidentally spat on in conversation.

Me: That dishonest, smiling nod you give when someone is discussing a topic with which you should be familiar, but aren’t.

Ben: The urge to test whether paint marked “wet paint” really is still wet.

Me: Avoiding the top newspaper in a stack because the one under it is probably more pristine.

Ben: The dilemma of whether to ask someone to repeat something a third time, or to pretend you understand.

Me: Upon being asked to repeat something a third time, the dilemma of whether to do it, or to truthfully say it’s not important enough to bear repeating, and risk seeming churlish.

Ben: Enjoying emotionally manipulative mass culture, despite knowing you are being manipulated.

Me: The dilemma of whether to write something that is kind of trite and obvious and formulaic, just because you know that people are not that discriminating, and will enjoy it and talk about it.

E-mail Gene at Find chats and updates at

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