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The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

Book sitting on a desk.
Book sitting on a desk.
When we don’t know a word, we look it up in the dictionary.

There’s usually a word for most things, and we’ll often come out of our search with a word we didn’t know existed.

And yet, it just so happens that our dictionaries don’t define all the things we experience, no matter the language. Take English for example, where there aren’t many words to properly express certain emotions. That’s contrary to German, where there are terms like schadenfreude, the pleasure from experiencing others’ misfortunes, and weltschmerz, a feeling of sentimental sadness or weariness, knowing that reality will never reflect the ideal state you picture. Or even yūgen in Japanese, the awareness of the profound, elusive beauty of the things around us, and ukiyo—translated literally to “floating world”—meaning to live in the moment, free from the burdens of life.

It’s not surprising that our vocabularies are limited, given how strange our feelings and thoughts can be. Some of our emotions can be easily named, like love, pain, sadness, anger, doubt. But sometimes they’re complex, made up of an overlap of several emotions, or seemingly too intricate and personal to be defined. They’re often fleeting, too, consuming us for days at a time and then disappearing altogether—but they’re also constant, persistent, intense, and fragile. It would be difficult to find words to capture our emotions in bite-sized descriptions. But it’s comforting when we do find them.

The gap in the English language, in particular, is what prompted John Koenig to start The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a project he has been working on since 2009. It’s a compilation of neologisms (newly coined words or phrases) that aim to “give a name to emotions we all might experience but don’t yet have a word for,” he writes. The project first started as a website——before expanding into a YouTube channel with longer definitions, and is now finally published as a book.

Koenig’s goal with this project was relatively simple: to build a home to shelter all those nameless, indescribable emotions we’ve felt, and to help us find comfort in those shared experiences. It’s a reassuring thing, to find a word that pins our wild thoughts into place and explains our strangest feelings. Even more reassuring to know we’re not alone in the things we’ve lived through. We’re not the only ones afraid. We’re not the only ones worried. We’re not the only ones lost.

Flipping through Koenig’s dictionary, you’ll likely feel minor jolts of recognition. Maybe you come across a word for something you’ve felt before, or something you didn’t even realize you’ve felt until you see it defined. Of the many you do recognize, there might be a dozen more you weren’t aware of, and reading their meanings will make you wonder about what other emotions exist out there, still waiting to be rescued from the void and given a name. No matter the case, the words you’ll find may resonate with you, like the ones listed below:

Dès vu, the awareness that this moment will become a memory;

Yu yi, the desire to feel intensely again, as you did when you were younger;

Maru mori, the heartbreaking simplicity of ordinary things;

Anemoia, a sense of nostalgia and longing for a past you’ve never experienced;

Kenopsia, the eeriness of a place that’s usually bustling with people, like a school hallway or a busy intersection, that’s now quiet and abandoned;

• And sonder, probably Koenig’s most known word— the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.

Most of these words were derived from multiple languages—German, Greek, Chinese, Japanese, French, and more—then pieced together to form new meanings. It’s a process like the birth of existing words, having either been borrowed, recycled through history, or adopted through wide usage. Despite all the words in Koenig’s dictionary being “made up,” they’re no less real than the words we use now—since, at some point, all words were made up by someone. It’s a reminder that our possibilities can be infinite if we just stretch the limits of our language and explore a little further, dig a little deeper. And it’s a relief to know we’re not bound only by the words we know now.

By the time you reach the end of Koenig’s dictionary, you’ll probably find yourself aching. Curious. Restless for more. What other words are out there? What other metaphors could we make? What other meanings could we discover?

Maybe most importantly, it’s a relief to know that we’re the ones who give words their meanings so that they can live to tell our story. Just as Koenig once said, “Words are not real. They don’t have meaning. We do.”


Word of the Day (shortened excerpt):

onism – n. the awareness of how little of the world you’ll experience

It’s strange how little of the world you actually get to see. At any given time, you’re barely more than an hour’s walk from a completely different world. Alas, even if you lace up your boots and take off for the hills, the circle of your horizon will follow you around like a prison searchlight.

Sometimes late at night you look out at the lights flickering in the distance, just on the edge of the horizon, and find yourself struggling to imagine the alternate universe that each of them represents. You think of all the places you’ll never have time to explore, some of which might feel like the home you never had, or like a living hell, or like walking around on another planet. You might one day be able to visit one or two or ten of these places, but you’ll never be able to shake the feeling that with every step you take, a thousand more lights will appear, and a thousand more, and a thousand more.

It’s strange to think that some of those lights in the distance might be looking right back at you, wondering to themselves what it’s like to be standing right where you’re standing, and they might even be feeling a sense of loss, knowing they’ll never have time to explore your corner of the world.

If someone were to ask you on your death- bed what it was like to live here on Earth, perhaps the only honest answer would be: “I don’t know. I passed through it once, but I’ve never really been there.”