Link to the University of Pittsburgh
Jesus College, University of Cambridge

Keyword: Emotion

Encompassing now far more than its earliest denotation in English of political or social disturbance, the word emotion has achieved widespread but specialized use in a variety of technical and professional fields, alongside general currency as an apparent close synonym for feeling. The modern complexity of the word arises not only from its range of meanings, but because emotion is used increasingly of social practices and exchanges between people rather than exclusively to characterize private mental states. The word also charts a historically complicated interaction between notions of body and mind, commonly in the face of an ideological assumption made about women’s predisposition towards feeling rather than reason.

The origins of English emotion lie in part in Middle French émotion, which had the meanings of civil unrest, public commotion, movement, disturbance, or an excited mental state. Emotion also has an origin in earlier, post-classical Latin emotio, signifying displacement and emotio mentis, an agitation of the mind. Earliest recorded use of the word in English dates from mid 16c, when emotion carried a negative connotation and denoted ‘political agitation, civil unrest, a public commotion or uprising’, a meaning that persisted until late 18c. Writers of the time quoted in the OED used emotion in conjunction with other words that communicate disorder: “The great tumultes and emotiones that were in Fraunce betwene the king and the nobilitie” (1562); “during the tyme of the lait troubles and emotioun” (1569); “There were great stirres and emocions in Lombardye” (1579); and “disorder and emotion” (1664).

According to the OED, around the turn of 16c emotion began to acquire new meanings. First, like its root word, motion, the term came to represent a generalized concept: it suggested not only civil unrest but any disturbance or movement. The fact that emotion still expressed such a disruption into 19c demonstrates that its senses extended but did not at the same time become more neutral. Emotion importantly articulated bodily motions such as those of the mouth, pulse, or blood, as well as movements or changes in nature, including wind, thunder, and earthquakes.

Second, towards the end of 16c the termbecame specialized to denote a migration or movement from one place to another. This sense was short-lived, however, lasting only through to late 17c, when emotion began to be more commonly ascribed to human mental states. Although the OED notes that such early use became obsolete, the influence of this sense on the two major modern senses of emotion is unmistakable.

The first contemporary sense of emotion is also attested from early 17c: ‘an agitation of mind’ or ‘excited mental state,’ in this way demonstrating continuity with the earliest English meaning, that of ‘political agitation.’ In general terms, the dramatic 17c shift from a social and political to a personal and psychological sense coincides with consolidation of the modern European concept of individualism developing contemporaneously in philosophy, even though the term ‘individualism’ itself was not used until Alexis de Tocqueville coined it to describe the phenomenon in 1835. This sense of agitation of mind expanded subsequently to include ‘any strong mental or instinctive feeling.’ The modifier ‘strong’ captures the emerging idea of emotions as feelings with gradable intensity and suggests perception of some degree of departure from a usual level of intensity for “normal” feelings. In its second current OED sense, also attested from early 17c, emotion established itself as a mass noun indicating ‘strong feelings, passion; or instinctive feeling as distinguished from reasoning or knowledge.’ This sense accentuates a new antithesis conveyed by the word between emotion and reason, suggesting that emotion, supposedly removed from logic or knowledge, is more closely related to intuition and the human sensory apparatus than it is to cognition.

In its main modern sense, emotion is often used interchangeably with feeling. In technical fields such as psychology, emotion studies and neuroscience, by contrast, scholars go to great lengths to distinguish the two words and the concepts they convey. Since emotions are seated in the mind they tend to last longer than feelings, which usually require the presence of a physical stimulus; and whereas it is often external forces which give rise to emotions, internal mental phenomena such as thoughts and memories can also inspire them.

Two adjectival forms, emotional (from 1821) and emotionless (from 1800), occupy opposite ends of the spectrum and together demonstrate new concern in 19c with methods for quantifying emotional intensity. Emotional implies an excess of strong, instinctive feelings, and, when used to characterize individuals, describes people who cannot control their feelings or behavior. Since late 18c and early 19c, when women’s capacity for sensibility was cultivated, emotions and the adjective emotional have traditionally been associated with femininity. Depending on context, on the other hand, emotionless describes either a person who relies on reason rather than passion, or, in a more pejorative sense, a person who is cold and merciless. The fact that both adjectives can have unfavorable connotations in certain contexts suggests that it is lack of conformity to societal norms governing the expression and control of the emotions, as much as either particular excess or absence, that is viewed with suspicion through the use of these terms.

Also indicative of emotional variation among individuals is emotional intelligence, the name given to a concept that has gained attention since the 1990s but first appeared in mid 19c. Reflecting complex changes of meaning also in the word intelligence, emotional intelligence designates a capacity to experience emotions. Unlike emotion, however, which the OED defines as removed from reasoning and knowledge, emotional intelligence appears by contrast to suggest that one can indeed have the capacity to be aware of, manage, and express emotions in a reasonable and intelligent manner. The ensuing practice of measuring an Emotional Intelligence Quotient (EQ), in the form of a standardized psychological assessment along with the more familiar IQ test, suggests that emotions are increasingly viewed positively in certain social situations. The question remains, nevertheless, whether it is possible to measure a person’s ability to understand and respond to emotions, or whether such tests merely judge how far one conforms to socially accepted ways of expressing them.

The emergence of other late 20c terms, including emotional marketing and emotional labor, suggests that emotions have become commodities. Emotional marketing attempts to understand, predict, and manipulate consumers’ emotions for profit, encouraging them to suspend judgment and make impulse purchases. The principles according to which such emotional marketing operates build on and emphasize perceived antagonism between emotion and reason embedded in the earlier history of emotion. Employees are also said to engage in emotional labor when their jobs require that they display certain emotions and suppress others. In such contexts emotions may be likened to a performance, particularly if there is a discrepancy between how a person feels and acts. This theatrical aspect of the noun emotion also finds expression in the verb form, to emote, meaning to “express (excessive) emotion” or to “perform in a dramatic or emotional manner.”

Although emotions are typically described as mental states, visible signs on the face and body play a critical role in their expression and communication.Facial expressions and bodily movements were first related to emotional states by Charles Darwin inThe Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). It is in this context that influence of the earlier meaning of emotion, as movement or bodily motions, most clearly asserts itself, in the (now theorized) link to more modern perspectives.

Emoticon, a portmanteau of emotion and icon, first entered the computing world in the 1990s to denote facial expressions formed by keyboard characters used to convey a sender’s feelings or intended tone. Such visual representations of emotional expressions have now become standardized in digital communications: users employ emoticons conventionally and consistently in order to specify their intended tone or feelings in messages, although idiosyncratic and creative uses are also possible.

Having in its earliest uses been related to physical perception and deployed in contrast with reason, the various senses of emotion have absorbed more complex modern understandings of the relationship between emotion, cognition, and the sensorium. While the antithesis between feeling and reason is still present in contemporary uses of emotion, recent coinages such as emotional regulation and emotional freedom open up discussion of agency and control, pointing to the further, unexplored significance of emotions in analyses of politics and power relations.