Words for obscure emotions remind us we have company in our most private moments, writes John Koenig in his prologue to “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” a compendium of words he invented (or reinvented, in some cases). Koenig is taken with the “aches, demons, vibes, joys, and urges that are humming in the background of everyday life,” he writes. Take for example “zielschmerz,” the throb of dread that sometimes hits when you’re on the cusp of realizing a long-held dream. Or perhaps you’ve savored a moment of “nyctous,” which Koenig defines as “feeling quietly overjoyed to be the only one awake in the middle of the night.”
Koenig began coining and compiling such words on his website in 2009, a foray followed by a YouTube channel and TED Talk. Some of Koenig’s creations have, Pinocchio-like, come to life and escaped into the wider world. His 2012 neologism “sonder,” which Koenig called “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own,” is the namesake for, among other things, several studio albums, a hospitality company and eateries in California, Wisconsin and Kosovo.
Some of Koenig’s words are cobbled from snippets of European languages, while others are simply pulled from the world’s bargain bin of used-but-still-useful vocabulary. For example, Koenig’s adjective “idlewild” — “feeling grateful to be stranded in a place where you can’t do much of anything” — is borrowed from the original name of John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Flipping through the book may bring jolts of recognition. After posting “sonder” on his website nearly a decade ago, Koenig writes that he received an avalanche of emails from readers thanking him for putting words to a feeling they’d experienced but never named. Entries in the dictionary range from pithy definitions to mini essays on modern life’s anxieties.
It’s not all whimsy, and a philosophy of language weaves through the dictionary. Koenig, who works in advertising, encountered such ideas as an undergrad at Macalester College and remains entranced by the subtleties of language. Words “function as a kind of psychological programming that helps shape our relationships, our memory, even our perception of reality,” Koenig writes. He quotes the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s aphorism that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” In the most extreme version of this reasoning — a theory called linguistic determinism that’s almost entirely shunned by linguists — our native tongues imprison our minds, leaving us capable only of understanding the feelings and concepts our languages allow. That can’t be the case: Think of the readers Koenig encountered who immediately recognized their previously unnamed experiences reflected in words like “sonder.”
A scaled-back version of this idea, however, has currency among some linguists, researchers and psychologists. In his 2010 book “Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages,” Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher argued that the words we use can subtly channel our experiences and habits of mind. Neuroscientist Kristen Lindquist, who leads the University of North Carolina’s Carolina Affective Science Lab, has found that words help crystallize quicksilver emotional experiences into something more recognizable. Psychologist Tim Lomas created an interactive lexicography of emotion words in languages from Akkadian to Zulu, positing that expanded sentimental vocabularies enrich our inner lives. (The Lomas lexicography includes several entries drawn from Koenig’s writings.)
And it’s undeniably thrilling to find words for our strangest feelings. “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” is most compelling when Koenig casts light into lonely corners of human experience. “In language, all things are possible,” he writes. “No sorrow is too obscure to define.” Some of these words have particular resonance for a world rocked by a pandemic that has left many isolated in the extreme.
Take “kenopsia,” the eerie, echoey feeling of a busy place, such as a shopping mall or downtown boulevard, when it is suddenly emptied of people. Or “solysium,” a kind of delirium arising from spending too much time by yourself.
In a sense all words are made up by someone, at some time. It’s an idea that lends living, breathing languages like ours their precarious charm: The things we say across the breakfast table, or whisper in a lover’s ear, are simply made-up words we’ve deemed useful enough to keep in circulation. “A word is only real if you want it to be,” Koenig writes. It’s a defense of language’s endless creative possibility, and a fitting coda to an enchanting book of made-up words turned real.
Jen Rose Smith is a writer in Vermont.
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows
By John Koenig
Simon and Schuster. 288 pp. $19.99