It is curious to consider the notion that at some point all words were invented. We utter the sounds we do essentially because someone, at some point, decided that this sequence of sounds should stand for this emotion, place, time, interaction, or object.
At some point, someone felt “a sense of repentance, guilt, or sorrow, as over some wrong done or an unfulfilled ambition,”* and invented the string of sounds known today as “regret.” Now, these words are taken for granted. Our languages are incredibly complex, with the capacity to describe most human experiences. Meanwhile, we go through life, and we go to school, and we learn all these words. Definitions are memorized, used in assignments, and pointed out in our reading. We know Jay Gatsby has regrets.
We know definitions, but we don’t always know meanings. Not all at once, anyway. Understanding the meaning of words, and why someone would invent such a word, comes gradually. When we read The Great Gatsby in high school, we haven’t had the chance for the breadth of experience that Jay has. We know the definition of his regret, but not the meaning. And yes, high schoolers have regrets too and they can certainly be profound regrets relative to their age. But it isn’t profound in the sense of the entire human experience, in the sense that would motivate the invention of the word. That feeling comes later.
It comes now, or begins to. Now in our early 20s — making decisions that will affect the remainder of our lives, in a context with great costs and benefits. Now when we are old enough — and have enough life experience — to begin to understand what it means to love someone. What it means to lose that love, or to not have that love returned. What we do with all this is what might later prompt the invention of a word: regret. We might’ve experienced all these things before — high school is a cesspool of unrequited love — but it’s different now. We talk about heartbreak in high school because we knew the definition and decide that, surely, this is what we must be feeling. But it is not till now that we can understand the meaning; it is not until now that we understand why someone initially invented a phrase which is now a cliché used by every unoriginal poet: We now know that sometimes it truly feels as if each ventricle is being torn in different directions and your guts are being torn out of your navel.
We suddenly understand why Jay is so miserable.
But maybe it’s all an illusion. Maybe I think that I know the meaning of words more profoundly now, in the same way I thought so in high school. Maybe it is a fallacy of youth. Perhaps, when I am old, and wizened, I will come to find that I never really knew the meaning of “regret,” “love,” and “heartbreak” till just then. But then again, how am I to know then whether I might understand the meaning of words better, were I just to live a few more years? Do we ever really know? Isn’t there always someone wiser?
If even Socrates says, “I know one thing: that I know nothing,” perhaps even the wise guys don’t really understand.