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English Language & Linguistics

English Language


Words describing pain

How do we describe something that we have experienced to someone who has not?
We share a language with other speakers and often share the same understanding of words and phrases. However there are times when we see, hear, smell or feel something that requires us to describe it by using language creatively, even uniquely. One of these ways is to use similes. The simile lets us relate a known to an unknown, to compare the familiar with the unfamiliar.
How big was it? As big as a house?
How long did it take? It seemed like days ….

Some experiences are very hard for us to describe and pain is one example.
A doctor may ask what kind of pain we are experiencing in order to assess our needs. It might be useful to rate pain on a scale, not just in degrees of "ouch" but by the quality of the pain too.

waspJustin O. Schmidt was an entomologist and claims to have been stung by the majority of stinging insects. His Schmidt Sting Pain Index is a pain scale rating the relative pain caused by different stings.
The index starts from 0 for ineffective stings through 2, a familiar pain such as a common bee or wasp sting, and finishing at 4 for the most painful stings.

However what sets his index apart from a simple thermometer or ruler measuring pain is the language in which the points on the index are described. "Light, ephemeral, almost fruity" he writes for the the most delicate pain.

Here is a scientist using words both creatively and precisely for a distinct purpose.

  • Do his descriptions work for you?
  • Can you now imagine how it must feel to be stung by a hornet?
  • If a sting from a Bullhorn Acacia Ant is said to be like a staple fired at your cheek but you've never had a staple fired at your cheek are you any nearer understanding the pain?
  • If you've been stung by a bee or a wasp do you think his descriptions are accurate?
  • Can you create a similar index for shades of green? For smells?

The Schmidt Sting Pain Index

1.0 Sweat Bee
Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.

1.2 Fire Ant
Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch.

1.8 Bullhorn Acacia Ant
A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.

2.0 Bald-faced Hornet
Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.

2.0 Yellow Jacket
Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.

2.5 Honey Bee and & European Hornet
Like a matchhead that flips off and burns on your skin.

3.0 Red Harvester Ant
Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.

3.0 Paper Wasp
Caustic & burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.

4.0 Pepsis Wasp (Tarantula Hawk)
Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.

4.0+ Bullet Ant
Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.

And here are some general pain related words. They are clustered into 20 categories.
Do you agree with the clustering?
What changes, if any, would you make - adding moving or deleting?
Which clusters or particular words would you use for pain you've experienced - toothache, broken limb, headache, finger jammed in a door, standing on a spike, hitting a thumb with a hammer ....

General Pain Words

flickering, quivering, pulsing, throbbing, beating, pounding

jumping, flashing, shooting
pricking, boring, drilling, stabbing
sharp, cutting, lacerating
pinching, pressing, growing, cramping, crushing
tugging, pulling, wrenching
hot, burning, scalding, searing
tingling, itchy, smarting, stinging
dull, sore, hurting, aching, heavy
tender, taut, rasping, splitting
tiring, exhausting
sickening, suffocating
fearful, frightful, terrifying
punishing, gruelling, cruel, vicious, killing
wretched, blinding
annoying, troublesome, miserable, intense, unbearable
spreading, radiating, penetrating, piercing
tight, numb, drawing, squeezing, tearing
cool, cold, freezing
nagging, nauseating, agonising, dreadful, torturing

and finally ... what words would you use to describe the feeling that comes over you when the pain leaves and you realise it's not coming back?



 See also