Today’s Vocabulary Word is…

When pleasure is mistrusted…

One of the awesome things about getting married to a smart person is that Nora, the smart person in question, knows words that I don’t know. Words like stochastic (randomly distributed), or hematoma (a blood clot within body tissue instead of in a blood vessel). But my very favorite one, and the one that I’ve taken up into daily life, is anhedonic as an adjective or anhedonia as a noun.

Someone who is anhedonic (an- for without, and hedonic for pleasure) is unable to take pleasure in much of anything. Think of your most dour eighth-grade teacher, or Eeyore, or the buoyant couple in Grant Woods’ famous painting, American Gothic. Some take it further, declaiming not merely the possibility of pleasure for themselves but more fully that others shouldn’t have pleasure, either. H. L. Mencken defined puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

Nora’s been studying the Quakers of 19th-century New England. There’s a jolly crowd. They drummed people out of meeting for dressing too brightly (not unlike Eileen Fisher, or the Modernists of mid-20th-century architecture, who believed that concrete was decorative).

I got a phone call today from someone who wanted to complain that his neighbor was getting some sort of unfair advantage. The complainant didn’t want that advantage himself, just that his neighbor no longer have it. In second grade, we would have called him a tattletale, but I think that anhedonic is both more mature and more accurate.

A friend originally from Yugoslavia tells a traditional joke. A villager’s pig has died, and he is morose. He comes across a can, kicks it, and a genie emerges to grant him a wish. The villager ponders for only a moment before saying, “I wish that my neighbors’ pigs should be dead as well.”

So I offer this word, anhedonic, to you today. Use it as a sort of dowsing rod, to know who to avoid in your lives.

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