Book Review: The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig
John Koenig’s book The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows takes its name from the website and YouTube channel that Koenig set up for defining neologisms. Koenig’s dictionary compiles these new words for obscure emotions — extremely specific feelings that are commonplace but which we have not yet seen articulated. Koenig is a keen and brilliant writer, and his masterful use of language, analogy, and real-life examples really helps those unexpressed emotions — which you might have felt alone in feeling — come to life, making you realise that others out there experience the world as you do.
(In spite of the title, it is not just sorrowful emotions that are included. However, Koenig does stress that sadness originally meant “fullness”, from the Latin root satis, from which is also derived sated and satisfaction, and many emotions in the book retain a streak of this meaning, that of “being filled to the brim with some intensity of experience” and “exuberant upwelling”.)
Perhaps the most well-known emotion-based word (due in part to a popular video about it) is sonder, which is the “awareness that everyone has a story”, possibly connected with but basically separate from your own. Or as it is defined on The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows website, sonder is:
the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own — populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness — an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
It’s derived from the French sonder, which means to plumb the depths. Pronounced “sahn-der”, the word can be used as a noun or a verb, as you would use the word wonder. I refer to a similar concept in my first article on flânerie (or aimless wandering); Virginia Woolf used the term street haunting to refer to the act of walking through a city and putting yourself in the bodies and minds of strangers. In Woolf’s essay of the same name, the narrator explores this imaginative act of dipping in and out of others’ minds. We can think of street haunting, then, as not only the realisation of everyone else being a protagonist in their own story but trying to imagine ourselves from that very point of view.
One of my personal favourite words in the book, because of how it sums up the nature of so many philosophical issues (and tricky topics, in general) is achenia, which is:
the maddening sense that the world is too complex to even begin to understand, that whenever you try to answer even the most trivial question, it quickly tangles into a thicket of complications and melts into a quicksand of nuance, leaving you flailing for something solid to hold on to, struggling to come up with anything you could say that is definitively 100 percent true.
This noun has the following etymology: “From achene, the fruit that contains the seed of a flowering plant, which is often confused for the seed itself. Whenever you think you’ve arrived at the heart of something, it only ends up hidden away inside some other more complicated structure. Pronounced “uh-kee-nee-uh.”
Another one that is relatable in light of the COVID-19 pandemic is solysium, a noun that stands for:
the unhinged delirium of being alone for an extended period of time — feeling the hours stretch into days until a weird little culture begins to form inside your head, with its own superstitions and alternate histories and a half-mumbled dialect all your own — whose freewheeling absurdity feels oddly liberating but makes it that much harder to reacclimate to the strictures and ambiguities of modern life.
The term is derived from “solitary, being by oneself + asylum, a sanctuary for the mentally ill + Elysium, the ancient Greek equivalent of heaven. Pronounced “soh-lee-zee-uhm.”
One feeling, which I have certainly felt but never heard expressed anywhere else, is anemoia, which means “nostalgia for a time you never experienced”. While I did live through the 90s (I was born in ‘91), I feel a strange nostalgia for being in my 20s during that time, experiencing rave culture and backpacking before the age of smartphones. There is a distinct feeling of having lived through a great time and now reflecting on warm, cherished memories.
Some other highly relatable and highly idiosyncratic terms in the book are:
- Onism: the awareness of how little of the world you’ll experience, given how it is filled with an unfathomable number of amazing places, people, and opportunities. Every specific choice we make causes us to miss out on an incomprehensible number of other possible experiences.
- Olēka: the awareness of how few days are memorable. Intertwined with all that we have missed is the opposite (but also possibly disheartening) feeling of how little we’ve gained. Do you ever recall the weeks leading up to a holiday, or were they just obstacles or empty dates waiting to be crossed out and forgotten? What was the last thing you said to your friend? What did you eat for dinner this day last week?
- Koinophobia: this is the fear of living an ordinary life. Normal, usual, typical, regular, average — these words can all carry negative connotations.
- Yù Yī: “the longing to feel things intensely again”. This intensity of experience is abundant in our younger years — when we laughed hard, were filled with excitement, and felt completely carefree. And in the earliest stage of life, as infants, so much of our surroundings filled us with fascination. Intense feelings when we’re young make sense since this is when we’re exposed to so many new things. More routine and familiarity as we age might mean we don’t feel as intensely as often, but there will be instances when we are jolted awake from our routine and feel childhood sensations again.
Koenig writes, “All words in this dictionary are new. Some were rescued from the trash heap, and redefined, others were invented from whole cloth, but most were stitched together from fragments of a hundred different living languages, both living and dead. These words were not necessarily intended to be used in conversation, but to exist for their own sake.”
This creative mingling together of words from diverse languages is impressive and you end up learning a lot of new concepts and strange facts while reading Koenig’s short etymological descriptions under each new word. Some of the definitions of the words, such as for sonder, have also been expanded into short essays.
At the end of the book, in a section titled Neologistics (itself a neologism), Koenig writes:
…that’s what words are good for — they give meaning to everything they touch. We have the power to use them as we will, even if it means starting over, wiping the slate clean so we can get to work redefining the world around us, until our language more closely matches the reality we experience.
I think that’s the reason why I wanted this book to exist, why I spent so many years chasing this obsession, and why it’s brought me so much joy over that time. I don’t know much about anything, and I can’t back this up with any hard data, but I wholeheartedly recommend the practice of inventing new words to pin down whatever it is you’re feeling. It loosens your mental frameworks and gives you a sense of ownership of the stories you tell yourself.
Now is the time to go looking for gaps in the lexicon, scribbling monsters in the blank spaces of the map, to alert others that something might be down there.
Reading the book and this call to action at the end of it got me thinking about what obscure emotions have yet to be named, what new words would be suited to them, and how they should be defined. One feeling that came to mind is how, when walking down the street, people can seem more like moving obstacles, rather than actual people. This is an obscure sorrow because I often associate this feeling with irritability, with the thought “Get out of my way!”
This people-as-obstacles feeling is normal in any city. It’s a kind of urban frustration that comes from being surrounded by crowds, by busyness, by throngs of people rushing about, all going in different directions and at different speeds. The mind did not evolve to comfortably be in a constant empathic state, a mode of street haunting or sonder, where we see each person as a complex entity with their own life story, with concerns and interests that are supremely important to them.
But this feeling happens outside of the urban context, too. Even on a quiet street or nature trail, people can feel like obstacles spoiling the peace. This brings to mind something I wrote in the past on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy and how the outer world reflects the inner. The perception of others as annoying obstacles in a city environment is understandable, no matter how upbeat and positive you may be at the time, but this feeling can also be an indication — a projection of — inner obstacles and disconnection; other people are just acting as the canvas for those feelings.
A term I thought could refer to this feeling is obstolère, which is made up of the word obstacle and the French word en colère, meaning angry or vexed. Maybe I’ll write a bit more about this feeling in a separate post. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, and Koenig’s call to action at the end, have definitely made me want to think about what obscure emotions have yet to be coined as words, including more positive ones.
One interesting term I have come across for a positive feeling, relating to the world of polyamory, is compersion, which can be thought of as the opposite of sexual/romantic jealousy. It refers to the vicarious joy associated with seeing one’s partner have a satisfying romantic or sexual relationship with another. Perhaps a difficult emotion to imagine feeling. Even people who are polyamorous may struggle with cultivating it, given how instinctive and powerful sexual jealousy can be. Anyway, the whole topic of neologisms made me think of it, given how specific this feeling is. What other highly specific positive emotions are yet to be defined?
Even if our neologisms don’t enter into any sort of usage, as compersion has done, Koenig is right to say that these emotion-based words are worth inventing for their own sake. They are a way to clarify our subjective experiences to ourselves and they help us to realise that the minutiae and complexity of people’s emotional lives are more similar than we previously imagined. Every neologism can allow new states of self-understanding and empathy to emerge.
Originally published at https://www.samwoolfe.com on September 26, 2022.