I have been searching, without success, for a word which means ‘to feel sympathy for an inanimate object’. Our old friend ‘synesthesia’ is the closest I’ve found yet and even a plea on twitter has failed me.

My search was prompted because, in quick succession this week, I heard reference to ‘pork barrel politics’ ‘cracker barrel philosophising’ and ‘scraping the bottom of the barrel’ and discovered an hitherto unknown concern for cooperage. What had the humble barrel done to deserve this?

Barrels are tough, utilitarian and long-lasting, sufficient at least to hold pork, crackers and sundry other contents, though these attributes also admit of more positive references. So, we ‘roll out the barrel’ if we want to have a good time. Someone is a ‘barrel of laughs’ (I confess I have always used this phrase ironically, to mean someone who most definitely isn’t) though we also say we get someone ‘over a barrel’ if we put them into a difficult position.

There are lots of names for barrels. Some are synonyms, like keg and cask, but many denote a barrel of a specific size. Did you know that there are eight barrels to a tun, two to a hogshead and four to a butt?  But these are wine barrels, if we consider beer barrels there are one and a half barrels to a hogshead and each barrel contains two kilderkins and four firkins. I love the specificity and agedness of these words.

My sympathy for the barrel might, I suppose, be because I see them everywhere when in Jerez. In the cathedral-like spaces of the bodegas, certainly, but often used in bars and cafes and as street furniture or advertising for the sherry houses. Some former bodega buildings are now used as restaurants (there is a very good one just around the corner from our street) and barrels are a feature. Most sherry barrels are made of American oak, which is more porous than european oak, and the barrels are often sold for scotch whiskey storage. Yet sherry barrels are never filled completely, there must be  a gap for air to allow for oxidation and the production of the flor, which makes a nonsense of those barrel names which signify amount contained.

Objects themselves can be said to ‘feel sympathy’ for each other, for example, in the way that iron feels a sympathy for a lodestone. This is the concept on which the idea of ‘sympathetic magic’ is based. So during the Middle Ages the cure for a stab wound sustained during a knife fight was widely believed to have to include the blade which caused the injury in order to heal it – the so-called ‘weapon salve’.

Science put paid to that idea, though neuroscience today is just beginning to chart how our brains work when we feel sympathy or other empathetic feelings. Cognitive processes from the frontal lobe of the brain are engaged, as well as the amygdala which becomes active when we feel emotions. As far as I am aware, scientists have studied human brain activity in our response to other human suffering ( the so-called mirror neurons which cause us to ‘feel your pain’ ) but no one has looked at why we feel sympathy for the inanimate. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t have a word for it. This logophile will keep looking.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy                                Boozing Kens                      When is a tea towel not a tea towel?                     What’s in a name?                          In the beginning…..

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