I once tutored an extremely bright young freshman who, when prompted by his professor to write a more than modest-length essay about The Fear of the Unknown, twisted his brow, pouted angrily, and said, “but, if I ain’t know what it is, how can I be scared of it?”
The contemporary system of American colleges and universities is unfortunately no stranger to such high feats of intellect. Much to the surprise of all, however, he did not finish the semester. And, although we might also wish for ourselves such a privileged life of gadding incompetence and drooling ease, we aren’t all so lucky.
Having already conquered breathing and washing our bodies, those of us highly developed creatures who endeavor to understand a thing or two about our “reality” (as Nabokov would have written it) often sense The Unknown as something of a lurking fear. The English language contains no dearth of words within its lexicon to report on this effect. There are, however, fine discriminations betwixt selections. Let’s start with something that might make us feel a bit queer.
Queer did not always mean “affluent student with good parents and a need to be the center of attention,” rather it served as an adjective that described something as “strangely off,” or “oddly amiss.” Rumored to be derived from the German quer (oblique), queer also means feelin’ “slightly ill” (heard often in traditional Irish music), as if one were feeling not quite knowingly sick but wambling on the verge of something, perhaps along Queer Street. And to queer something has always meant “to spoil or ruin” it, which presents an interesting irony against today’s fashionable usurpation. In fact, I should wager queer now as a word almost entirely ironic.
Strange is of French origin and means “something unusual or surprising,” specifically in a way that is “difficult to understand.” This may describe an external event or the way one feels, both of which usages arise from strange’s connotations with something “never before seen or encountered and likely unfamiliar,” even “alien,” which supports a notion of linkage with the archaic sense of the word: “unaccustomed to or unfamiliar with.” Odd would be the closest in meaning to strange, though not geographically. Odd was born and raised in Old Norse and also applies itself to numbers that have one left over as a remainder, whenever divided by two. Be there a connection between something’s being off-kilter and its lack of even division?
Fey is perhaps my favorite word to describe oddity, if only for its aesthetic appeal. Fey is a stronger word than strange or odd, for it connotes “an impression of vague unworldliness or mystery,” as well as describes someone as “having supernatural powers of clairvoyance.” Fey is of Germanic origin and has reached your eyes today through Dutch and Old English. There is also an archaic, Scottish definition that means “fated to die or at the point of death,” which leads one to wonder why Shakespeare, for Macbeth—or, The Scottish Play—chose to name the witches therein not The Fey Sisters, but rather The Weird Sisters.
In fact, The Weird Sisters makes complete sense and is, though it sounds commoner, a more sophisticated usage. Weird is also of Germanic origins and therefrom the Old English wyrd or “destiny,” or, more specifically, “having the power to control destiny.” German mythology defines weird closely to how the Greeks defined Fate. But, they are not the same. The German idea of weird means a web of interconnected events, of which a linear path can be neither drawn nor understood, whereas the Greek idea of fate took things more linearly. Something that’s weird is of unstoppable, pre-determined origins that, whilst momentarily fey, was ultimately a cosmic certainty. Nowadays, as most things, we’ve simplified it to mean “supernatural or unearthly,” or, if you’re of humbler ilk, “something bizarre,” which comes from the Italian bizzarro. In this sense, then, Macbeth, by powers beyond his reason and control, had always been doomed to something weird.
Though fate is an ancient Greek concept, we receive the word by way of Latin. Greek mythology’s The Fates presided over the birth and life of humans, each person’s destiny weaved by them: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos—another three weird ladies. As a society, we tend to stick a bit etymologically truer to fate than to weird. Fate is a development of events within each person’s life that are outside of each person’s control, which, like things weird, are pre-determined and controlled supernaturally. Unlike weird, however, fate is thought as linear. Think of weird as a spider web and fate as a river.
Supernatural has been a difficult word to avoid using, as it is today used to describe essentially any force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature. Natural things, as we’ve come to understand them, are things native to our physical, material, observable world, things that can be sensed and are therefore measurable. Super- is a prefix that roughly means “over” or “above,” which has heavenly connotations. Preternatural is a near synonym, preter- meaning “beyond” or “more than.”
There are also more secular, yet less powerful, words that one many employ to describe anything deviating from what is normal or usual—often in a way that is undesirable or worrying—words such as unusual, uncommon, and unconventional are decent neutral choices with a slight leaning in meaning towards societal normativism. Unorthodox is also a fine, middle-brow selection with some religious connotations. Abnormal and atypical are alternatives, but they’ve become bloodless, scientific bores that have actually taken on meanings of their own and have, like queer, become almost entirely ironic in nature. Outré would be a good, neutral choice for the Francophile who wants to describe a thing that is “beyond the limits of what it considered usual, normal, or proper” and carries the notion of “singularly unique,” which is an unfortunate contemporary redundancy to commit on the part of the Author, as “unique” has now essentially lost all meaning, for everyone is today “unique”—one need only a red streak in one’s hair.
Funny and Curious inhabit one category; both have amusing aspects, which can simultaneously describe something strange or unusual. Funny can describe something that arouses suspicion, as well as, like queer, one’s feeling “slightly but undefinably unwell.” Curious contains the obvious meaning of “eager to know or learn something” but can also be used as an adjective or nominative adjective to describe something that arouses the need to know or learn: “This is a curious novel; do you perhaps have a copy that I might borrow?”
Uncanny is a current crowd-pleaser, and is, in my opinion, a trifle over-used and will soon find itself queered. Uncanny describes something that’s simultaneously odd and unsettling, due to the described’s enigmatic nature and potentially threatening manifestation. Bandying nowadays about The Uncanny Valley is common. I’m bothered by the redundancy found in this phrase, as it describes by merely re-describing the definition of uncanny. A perhaps helpful metaphor, however, is the aim here.
We’ll finish with a mystery. The meaning of the prefix myst-/myster-, which occupies a spot in English by way of Ancient Greek, Latin, and French, respectively, is best translated today as “one whose eyes are closed.” Anything with this prefix possesses a connotation of secret enigmatic strangeness. Moreover, it carries an esoteric sentiment, conjuring images of the soul or the spirit, rather than things material. And, finally, as in the case of things mystic or mystical, symbolic and allegorical significance that transcends human understanding is suggested, religion or the occult often implied.