Q: Lately I’ve been seeing “all the feels” and similar phrases on social media, as in “This film gives me all the feels.” I’ve even seen it in movie reviews. Where does this come from?
A: Yes, the use of “feels” to mean deep feelings (as in “Casablanca gives me all the feels”) is definitely out there, and the usage is beginning to make it into standard dictionaries.
Oxford Dictionaries Online, in its US and UK editions, describes the usage as informal, as does Dictionary.com, which is largely an updated, online version of the Random House Unabridged Dictionary.
Oxford Dictionaries defines “feels” in this sense as “feelings of heightened emotion,” and gives several examples: “fans will undoubtedly get the feels when they see how things haven’t changed” … “I cried a ton because I had too many feels” … “I cry at everything, even the types of movies you wouldn’t expect to give you all the feels.”
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary doesn’t have an entry yet for “feels,” but it says the usage is on its radar.
In its “Words We’re Watching” feature, M-W traces the usage “back to a meme created in 2010 by a user on a German image site. The image in question features two embracing men along with the caption, ‘I Know That Feel Bro.’ ” (The image was on Krautchen, a now-defunct website.)
“The meme came to be used as a shorthand for expressing empathy, particularly between strangers online,” Merriam-Webster says, adding that “Internet memes are noted for their playful use of disjunctive grammar … so it is possible that feel was used in place of feeling for that same reason.”
The M-W article notes that “feel” already had “plenty of use as a noun, from meanings such as ‘sensation’ (the feel of old leather) to ‘a particular quality or atmosphere’ (an inn that has all the feel of a castle) to ‘an intuitive knowledge or ability’ (has a feel for woodworking).”
We’d add that the noun “feel” has been used since the 1400s to mean “feeling,” and the plural “feels” since the 1700s to mean “feelings,” but that old sense is different from the usage we’re discussing now: deep feelings one has about something, or that something gives one.
The M-W article cites several examples for “feels” used to mean deep feelings, including this one from the May 27, 2017, issue of Teen Vogue:
“If that tear-jerker has you feeling all the feels, just wait for this one: The finale also includes Spencer quoting the Winnie the Pooh line, ‘How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard?’ Sob.”
Merriam-Webster says its “Words We’re Watching” feature “talks about words we are increasingly seeing in use but that have not yet met our criteria for entry.”
Will “the feels” finally make it?
“Only time will tell if the feels will last long enough to warrant a new entry in the dictionary,” M-W says. “But for now, to quote Spencer, how lucky are we to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard?”
Interestingly, M-W here quotes Spencer Hastings, a character in the TV series Pretty Little Liars, rather than Winnie-the-Pooh. Probably because it’s doubtful that Pooh was the source.
The quotation doesn’t appear in any of A. A. Milne’s stories or the movies based on them, according to a Dec. 30, 2014, post on Pooh Misquoted. The website says the quote is a mangled version of a line in The Other Side of the Mountain, a 1975 movie about Jill Kinmont, a skier paralyzed in a 1955 slalom accident. We also couldn’t find the quote in our Pooh searches.
The earliest written example we’ve seen for “feels” to mean strong feelings is from a Jan. 23, 2012, contribution to the collaborative Urban Dictionary: “feel: Shortened version of ‘feeling,’ generally a strong emotional response. ‘This story gave me so many feels’ … ‘I know that feel, bro.’ ”
And here’s one a few months later from the Sept. 18, 2012, issue of the Stanford Daily News: “And let’s not forget the feels. This album might have them all—the melancholy, the awkwardness, the nervous anticipation, the blissed-out nighttime drives with the qtpi [cutie pie] of your dreams and the memories of summer.” (The reference is to I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, a 1997 album by the indie rock band Yo La Tengo.)
The earliest example we’ve found for “all of the feels” is from the Sept. 12, 2013, issue of Miscellany News, Vassar’s student newspaper: “Everyone else arrives back on campus; Seniors report feeling ‘all of the feels’ and also ‘really sweaty and broke.’ ”
As you might expect, the word “feel” itself is quite old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times.
When the verb “feel” showed up in Old English (as fēlan or a prefixed form, gefēlan), it had several meanings, including to sense heat, cold, pain, and so on, as well as to experience something, especially something unpleasant, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Here’s an early OED example, which we’ve expanded, from an Old English homily: “Þær næfre heaf ne geomorung ne gnornunge ne granunge bið gehyred, ðær ne bið næfre wite gesewen ne gefeled” (“there never be neither lamentation nor moaning nor groaning, there never be misery neither heard nor seen nor felt”). The final word, gefēled, is the past participle of gefēlan.
When the noun “feel” appeared in Middle English (spelled fele), it had several senses, but most of them are now obsolete. The early meaning that’s seen the most now is a feeling, impression, or sensation, as in “the feel of her hand” or “the feel of the business” or “the feel of a full stomach.”
The first OED citation is from The Buke of the Law of Armys (1456), the Scottish poet Gilbert Hay’s translation of Arbre des Batailles, a 14th-century book about war by the Benedictine prior Honoré Bonet:
“Ane evill carnale fele … the quhilk … dampnis thair saulis perpetualy” (“Any evil carnal feel … which … damns their souls perpetually”).
And this Oxford example for the plural “feels,” which we’ve expanded, is from an undated letter, believed written around 1746, by the English man of letters Horace Walpole:
“But here are no boys for me to send for—here I am, like Noah, just returned into the old world again, with all sorts of queer feels about me.” Walpole is describing his return as an adult to the Christopher Inn at Eton.
The dictionary’s entry for the noun “feel,” which was updated in September 2015, doesn’t include the use of “feels” to mean a deep emotion. But we imagine that the OED, like Merriam-Webster, has the new usage on its radar.
[Note, Sept. 2, 2018: A reader of the blog has pointed out the use of “feels” as a noun in Wild 90, an experimental movie that Norman Mailer directed, produced, and acted in. The movie, filmed in 1967 and released in 1968, has a character who says “You got no feels.” We think “feels” here is being used in the old sense of “feelings,” not the new of sense of “deep feelings” one has about something, or that something gives one.]