A Word for Our Indescribable Uniqueness

Je ne sais quoi • noun • (juh-nuh say qwahh)

Definition: “I don’t know what;” an expression of our existence beyond language

Origin: French

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A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine visited me in Washington, D.C. It was the first time we had seen each other since COVID-19 and we ended up having an engaging conversation about language.

Much of SCL’s work focuses on filling the linguistic void created by an ethnocidal society, but in this conversation, my friend and I spoke about the linguistic void that appears in a healthy society.

In a vibrant society infused with life, it is common that you will engage in a joyful or meaningful action and the revelatory impact of this experience may be so significant that you struggle to find the word or words that can adequately describe this experience. Likewise, you may encounter a person who has a talent that is hard to quantify and articulate, but its quality and importance are evident.

These moments speak to a healthy linguistic void that occurs within a vibrant life filled with an awareness of yourself and the world around you, and in order to adequately appreciate these moments, societies need to create linguistic placeholders for these indescribable moments.

Je ne sais quoi is one of these linguistic placeholders, and I especially enjoy this phrase because it speaks to the importance of coexisting with the unknown. By saying je ne sais quoi, you are acknowledging the importance of not knowing how something exists while still acknowledging that it does exist and that its existence matters.

A relationship with the unknown

The other day I had a conversation with the receptionist at my chiropractor’s office and she asked me how I became such a curious person and a critical thinker. I could not give her the answer she was hoping for. 

I do not know how I am this way, but I do know that I am the way that I am. I could not give her a quantifiable answer or a linear process that she could follow, but I could talk about je ne sais quoi

I could tell her that we all have unique attributes about ourselves that we struggle to articulate and that we need to still be able to value them even though they exist beyond language. 

Yet it becomes incredibly difficult to articulate the importance of our hard-to-define attributes if we do not have a linguistic placeholder for them. Without this language, it becomes much harder for us to value and protect the features that make us unique.

The unique attributes that make me the way that I am can be described as a je ne sais quoi, so the important thing for her is not to focus too much on trying to quantify my unquantifiable skills, but instead to recognize her je ne sais quoi.

Likewise, when my friend came to visit me, we had a similar conversation. Je ne sais quoi has a fascinating connection to friendships because it can be very hard to explain the catalyst of some of our best relationships.

Normally, we describe the birth of a friendship as “clicking.” It is common to say, “We just clicked,” when describing the catalyst of a friendship that could last decades. We do not know how we clicked, but we do know that the “clicking” occurred and it is valuable. Therefore, our society needed to create a word or a phrase in an attempt to describe the indescribable. 

As my friend visited me, we spent a lot of time talking about his je ne sais quoi and his unique style, which I described as a Midwestern, blue-collar sprezzatura (an Italian word that essentially means “style”). During these conversations, it became obvious that he knew he had a je ne sais quoi, but the absence of this phrase made him question the existence of his uniqueness. Essentially, if you know that you are unique in some way, which we all are, and your society lacks the language to describe your uniqueness, it becomes very easy to neglect and disregard what makes you special. 

This absence of language tragically inclines all of us to regress to a debilitating norm that suppresses our character and makes all of us less unique. This absence of language stifles our existence.

Ethnocide’s linguistic void

Ethnocide’s need to destroy culture so that people become commodities and laborers to generate wealth for the ethnocider can create a language that articulates human value based on our productivity and capacity to work. Not the unique, indescribable attributes that make us human.

Within ethnocide, people are inclined to consider a day successful because of the number of things they have accomplished on their checklist. Not based on cultivating the meaningful moments that often exist beyond language.

This is not to say that productivity and quantity are inherently bad, but the absence of the linguistic placeholders to describe the important facets of existence can mean that we are out of balance in our lives.

For example, my friend who came to visit me is a carpenter and he offered to do some repairs around our house. Over the course of two days, he accomplished a lot of work and did most of his carpentry work in white pants.

His white pants were covered in sawdust and stains, and by the end of the day, they looked more like an expensive pair of distressed jeans than traditional workman clothes. Eventually, I asked him if most people dressed like him when they worked, and he told me that no one dresses like him. In fact, it was far more common for his fellow carpenters to perceive him as being weird because he was not wearing the same Carhartt attire as everyone else. Due to this, it became even easier for him to feel like what made him unique is a problem.

Je ne sais quoi helped give him the language to articulate to himself and to others what makes him unique. Je ne sais quoi empowered him to fill the linguistic void that ethnocide creates. This phrase helped bring more balance to his life.

Ethnocide’s need to dehumanize the other cultivates a language that embraces dehumanization. The myopia of ethnocide inclines ethnociders to believe that the dehumanization will only apply to the other. But their myopia neglects the fact that once a society legitimizes dehumanizing language, we all end up speaking that language.

The words and phrases that speak to the meaningful and complex aspects of existence that are hard to articulate empower us to appreciate humanity and existence. Phrases such as je ne sais quoi can help us cherish and preserve the subtle nuances that make life meaningful.