The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows
by John Koenig
Simon & Schuster, 2022
Reviewed by Britt Rose Miller
A night ago, I laid in my bed staring at my ceiling, attempting to write some poetry during a song that made me feel a euphoric sadness. I spent over ten minutes researching words for this feeling – I found a few dictionary definitions, some blogs or articles about “23 Words you don’t know that describe feelings,” but couldn’t find any hope amidst the thousand-page results of my Google search. I became agitated and even started writing in my poem how mad I was that I couldn’t find the word for the feeling that I was feeling; how could anyone not have come up with a word for this? And then, a warm light shown through my screen, which led me to an Amazon link for John Koenig’s The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Sparkling reviews read of a genre-bending book that “by virtue of its definitions, defies its own definition” (Emilia Ferrante, Michigan Daily). In a fit of hopefulness to describe my long-lost word, I reluctantly added the book to my cart, hoping that it wouldn’t be another Kaur-tastrophie of cheesiness and money-grabbing. After receiving and reading the book, I can confirm that this book was created as my generation’s novelty language savior, especially in the age of growing mental-health awareness and emotional discussion.
Koenig opens the book with a reminder that even in our most private moments, our emotions accompany and even comfort us. The book resembles a collection of poetry and short essays with six sections separated by theme, including “The Interior Wilderness” (defining who you are from inside out) and “Faces In a Crowd” (catching glimpses of humanity from a distance). Within each theme includes his definitions for these words he has created, although they are not random in origination. Most of his creations are pulled from words that already exist, with pieces taken from European and Latin languages as well as some commonly used vocabulary. This linguistic justification is also evident in his words, where he typically describes phonetical pronunciation and originations in subtext under each definition, justifying his creative framework with practical application.
John Koenig actually started this project on his website in the yesteryear of 2009, followed shortly after by a YouTube channel and even a TED talk. Koenig eventually created the book out of this dictionary project, which he aimed to “find holes in the language of emotion and … fill them so that we have a way of talking about the human condition.” The words themselves that he creates are uniquely distinctive, with some offering historical contexts. Take “idlewild” for example: “feeling grateful to be stranded in a place where you can’t do much of anything”, which derived from the original name for the John F. Kennedy International Airport. This clever justification of the word justifies its phonetic usage as well as roots itself in historical accuracies. Some of his words have become mainstream, with his most popular being “sonder.”
Sonder’s definition is simple but loaded: “the awareness that everyone has a story.” One could read this definition and then go along with their day; their life did not change any more than before hearing the word. But each one of Koenig’s words not only has phonetic and historical contexts but is meant to make the reader recognize their own emotions and the weight these emotions can have. For “sonder,” the awareness that a random passerby around us each have their own rich emotional experiences may be both a revelation and a melancholy realization. We as humans will never get to experience life in the way that anyone else in the world has; each of our experiences, beliefs, and outcomes are uniquely ours. There is revelation in the fact that we are all each truly unique; no life has been lived in the exact same way. In the same sense, this melancholy feeling arises that we may never know what other people experience, what emotions we will never get to feel that they do. There is a sadness that these extraordinary people living extremely unique lives will never cross paths with us; a world of experiences we will never get to witness. Of course, we can use this idea to be thankful, especially in the sense of privilege. I, as a white person, will never have to experience the horrendous racism that people of color have to experience on the daily, and will never worry as much as they do when I get pulled over in America by the cops. In the same sense, I feel bad that others have not been able to experience life in the way I have; other people will never know the freeing yet terrifying revelation of a queer awakening that I have experienced. Some people will never even get to experience the feeling of an air conditioner after a hot summers’ day, of which I am aware and thankful for the opportunity to have been born in a place that I can do so. And the idea that Koenig has created a word in which everyone else who learns of it probably feels the exact same way I do is something special indeed.
In addition to the “deep-thinking” words, there are also words that capture common experiences of people. Words like “exulansis” finally puts “the tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it” into words; finally, I have a word for when I’m trying to tell a funny story but no one else thinks it’s funny and I give up trying to tell it and make others laugh by saying “you just had to be there.” Not only do these words help me define things to myself for my own sanity, but these words help others who are trying to understand us (friends, therapists, even doctors) and may even in turn change our experiences with others who just want to understand. Education is the cure for ignorance, and Koenig has created these words because he understands how important it is to define.
All words are made up by someone at sometime in the great timeline of the universe and our tiny planets’ existence, and of course we as humans (except for the unlucky photographic memory-ists) will not remember every word we’ve ever read. If that were the case, we could all just read a dictionary in every language and we could finally as a society communicate with one another. But this is the case Koenig is making with his book: the more definitions we have, the more we can communicate. And the more we communicate, the more we can grow in our understanding of each other and each of our unique, never-replicated experiences in life.