To my knowledge, there is no phrase or word to succintly express the very common, very human, emotion of base desire which will not be acted upon, due to intellectual restrictions. You want to do something, but at the same time do not want to, and will not, do it, because you 'know better'. This conflict of desires happens so frequently in the human experience, it seems like our language is lacking for not offering a concise desription.

Examples of where such a phrase would be apprpriate:
"I don't want to go to work because it is inherently distasteful, but the prospect of theloss of pay/wrath of my boss is more distasteful and makes me want to go."
"I want to eat a gallon of ice cream because I like ice cream a lot, but I am already full and it would make me feel bad physically and emotionally, so I don't really want it."
"I want to have sex with that 15 year old, but it would really piss off my spouse/lover plus I've been socialized to feel like a pervert if I did so, so I don't really want to."

These are cumbersome expressions, but just saying you want, or don't want, something in such a situation is insufficient.

One of the most unexpected gaps in the English language is the fact that there's no single verb which means "to smell pleasant" -- the opposite of "to stink". ("Manure stinks, but a rose... ?")

"Manure stinks, but a rose...?"

A rose embalms. It also perfumes. This isn't an inadequacy of the English language so much as it is an inadequacy of the evolution of the English language. As the language progresses, words lose meaning and parts of speech change. Not many people think of perfume as a verb, yet it is (yes, it's also a noun, but the fact that you can buy perfume in stores has caused the verb to be overlooked.)

As for embalm, defines it as "To impart fragrance to; perfume." However, use of the word embalm conjures up images of the embalming process -- something which, by all accords, is most certainly not pleasant smelling.

Like I said, this isn't the language's fault. The words you're looking for exist; most people are just too lazy to get out a dictionary or thesaurus and find out what they are, so they aren't ever used. Don't blame the language, blame yourself.

You've got me on "knowing better," though. The closest I can think of is a Chinese phrase which translates to "eating bitter."

English, as many languages, does not have a brief way of distinguishing a mechanistic 'why'; from a teleological 'why'.

For example:

Q: Why does the hammer on a piano strike the string then retract to its resting position?
Mechanistic answer: since it is unsupported, gravity pulls it back down.
Teleological answer: well, if it didn't retract, then it would dampen the sound, which is not what the piano designer intended.

Q: Why is the sky blue?
Mechanistic answer: higher frequencies of light scatter off of the small molecules in air more easily than the lower frequencies of light.
Teleological answer: er... god, umm.. well, that's the way it should be.

Q: Why do we pay taxes?
Mechanistic answer: er... it's sort of complicated. I dunno.
Teleological answer: if we didn't pay taxes, the IRS would have us arrested. Anyway, the money we provide to the government allows it to provide us with vital services like education, roads and other infrastructure, police to keep people from violating us or the commons, an army to keep us safe from invaders, and a Federal Government to laugh at hysterically.

As you can see from the later two examples, many questions are unambiguous since there is only one reasonable way to answer the question. However, some questions, especially concerning design, need to be specially disambiguated.

English also lacks a form of 'to be' which implies that the predicate is 'definitional' or always so.

For example:
"My grapes are delicious."
Do I mean that all grapes I ever have are delicious? Such a statement makes sense if I grow grapes. Or do I mean that the grapes I have at the moment are delicious?

Of course, this lack may actually be an advantage, since such strong statements tend to be dangerous.

'You' does not indicate number

When you said "You", did you mean "me" or "him and me"?
We used to have this - thou was reserved for singular familiar, in an arrangement similar to other western languages. Gradually, the restrictions on who was familiar enough you could use this became tighter and tighter; now, it only applies to God. With whom no one is even on speaking terms. Go figure.

'We' can include the addressee, or not.

When you said "We", did you mean "you and me", or "you and him"?

vuo says: the Sámi language and proto-Fennic in general has two "we's", "we two here" and "we" in any other sense

So it's official, that is not an entirely unreasonable thing to expect from a language!


To answer the limitation raised in the first writeup (of desire straight-up vs. desire tempered by reality), I often introduce the dichotomy of "wish" and "want". "Wish", I reserve for the situations in which judgement overrides the desire (including cases where I have not yet made up my mind). "Want", I reserve to mean what my judgement tells me to do.

Since this distinction is not explicit in the language, I make sure I have mentioned this to someone before I rely on the distinction. Still, it's intuitive enough that I guess I could.

"I wish to have some ice cream." (but I'm on a diet, so I won't)
"I want to have some ice cream." (screw the diet)
"Do you wish to pull his liver out with your bare teeth?" (answer could be 'yes')
"Do you want to pull his liver out with your bare teeth?" (answer is almost certainly 'no')
"I do not wish to put my dog to sleep." (who would wish to?)
"I want to put my dog to sleep" (because she has an excruciatingly painful stomach cancer which would kill her slowly over the next week)

English, however, lacks any sort of case system (except the genetive 's), has very simple conjugations, and a very flexible phonology as far as sounds and consonant clusters allowed. All of this makes English very good at borrowing words and ideas from other languages, since the nouns and adjectives don't really have to decline, and the verbs can be easily formed (we form verbs all the time with English nouns -- in fact, any English -- or whatever language -- noun can be used as a verb.)

You, on the night of the day you first saw her. How was that dinner party thing, Ward asks, voice distant. Amazing there remains even one dusty corner of his brain not focused on playing Halo. I met this girl, you said. Ward spins around. How had Halo ever been important.

A girl? What was she like?

“Nice, she was nice.”

On your second date you happen to mention you were adopted. Then that one part of your brain that Freud was right about kicks in. Your face must have done something cause she asks, what’s wrong. Oh nothing, it’s just that you’ve never really told people you were adopted. You hadn’t told Susan until you’d been dating for almost two years. Even your most of your best friends don’t know. It’s not that you are ashamed of it but its just a little thing you keep for only the ones who matter most to know.

Oh nothing, it’s just that I don’t normally tell people I’m adopted until I’ve known them for a while. Why did you tell me, then, she says. Her eyes flicker. Those eyes, you had wanted to say.

“I don’t know. It just came out I guess.”

She is hopping from rock to rock on the shore at Monterey. Later you would see an otter (wow a real otter!) and her smile would write itself onto the photographic emulsion of your mind and you would buy her that “Harry Otter” shirt of an otter with a lightning bolt scar.

What are you looking at she says.

“Everything. You.”

You were curled up like kittens on her bed. Why do you love me so much, she asked. Oh that’s easy you said, but it wasn’t. You said the things that came to your head that sounded most true. You complete me. You make me feel like I can do more than ever before. Your smile. Your eyes. Etc. But they were all clichés and they only got worse. You cursed the movies for filling your mind with such dreck.

The truth was so much more, but also so much simpler. But our minds and mouths almost never say what they really want to. They only repeat what they’ve heard before that comes closest. The most you can hope for is a slightly new combination.

You were hiking through Bryce Canyon with your kid brother the week before you left for Japan. Would you marry her, he wanted to know. I am marrying her! you said. When I come back. We got engaged last Saturday. How does it feel, he pleads, he is eager. He has been thinking about asking Jess.

You turned but didn’t answer cause the wind was whipping too loud to talk anyway, but your smile was as wide as the canyon.

It’s your last night together and she comes up for air with a wicked grin and wants to know how did that feel? You find yourself reminding yourself to breathe and you know you’ve never, and you’ll never ever.

“Good” and you gasp. “So good.”

But you did. You were in Japan and Yuki was nice and you were lonely and drunk but more angry than drunk or even lonely. You’d heard from Arie on IM why the dean of her med school was fired. It had even made the New York Times. When Yuki asked you later why you looked so sad you said “wakarimasen” but that was a lie cause you knew exactly why.

Her English was so much better than your Japanese, but Japanese is easier on the heart sometimes. Its sentences have no subjects, only verbs and the nouns things are done to.

You confronted her on your third night back. The makeup sex would have been amazing if you hadn’t known why she was doing it. Try to put yourself in my shoes, she said. He told me he wouldn’t recommend me to Harvard. Medicine is still a man’s world he told me. My career is my life, it’s everything I’ve worked so hard for. Don’t just sit there, please say something, please say anything.

But you said nothing. There were no phonemes in that alphabet.

It took you four months to kill that piece of your heart where she lived but you did. You had told her you still loved her and she had said she had never ever stopped loving you. But at some point you wanted to matter to her even more than her career, but now you knew for sure that day would never come. You could marry her, and be mostly happy, but you would always be the second to last thing sacrificed. And to you marriage was about making someone else the only thing you never sacrifice.

You were sitting across from each other eating ice cream in the Harrell’s in Harvard Square. The third time she did that little unknowing thing with her tongue to get the ice cream off the corner of her lip you just couldn’t anymore. You didn't want to let yourself think or speak so you pulled the key to her apartment out of your pocket and set it on the table. You had taken it off the key ring weeks ago but it had jangled loose in your pocket everyday until now.

She looked at it for a long time, melted ice cream running down her hand and dripping onto the formica.

I will always love you, she whispered at last, but she never looked up.

There was so much you wanted to say, but all you said was “I know.”

That night you stayed up with your journal, re and rereading the long entries you had made all those other nights. You had thought that today’s might be the longest one yet but in the end you only wrote one line and went to bed.

I am sad.

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