“So what is the Latin word for embarrassment?” asked one sixth former.
“And is it in short supply in America?” asked another, sharp of tongue, who I knew had been watching some of the rituals of the presidential election.
Declining to answer the second question, I considered the first one and was baffled.
The OED can be a useful port of call on these occasions, so we looked at it:
‘Intense emotional or social discomfort caused by an awkward situation or by an awareness that one’s own or another’s words or actions are inappropriate or compromising, or that they reveal inadequacy or foolishness; awkwardness, self-consciousness. (Now the usual sense.)
Frequently associated with particular bodily reactions, and expressed in terms of e.g. blushing, squirming, or wincing with embarrassment.
Typically distinguished from shame in being caused by something that is socially awkward or inappropriate rather than morally wrong or debasing.’
The OED finds it difficult to pin down the early history of the word embarrass: it is apparently from Middle French, used first in the Spanish Netherlands and derived from a Spanish verb embarazar, which meant to restrain an animal using a cord or a leash.
But to find a corresponding word in either Latin or Greek seems difficult. Its seems that pudor and αἰδώς suggest the ability to feel embarrassment, but neither seems to distinguish between a moral and a social feeling.
“So if there was no word for a feeling, does that mean that they didn’t feel it?” pursued the second student (she was intending to apply for an anthropology course.)
The answer to that is perhaps no. But there is the suspicion that some of the French think that embarrassment is ‘in short supply’ in England also, and to switch on the television at random might support that view.