In our everyday lives, we encounter several elusive emotions and moods for which there seem not to exist apt words to describe fully. Feelings that we often can't consciously recreate and which are often hard to identify. From nostalgia over an event in the past, or love for a group of people met years ago or feeling tiny in a universe so massive. Sometimes they are recurrent feelings and show up occasionally or randomly. Other times, more seldom encountered feelings that were experienced at some point after which they may have vanished into a deep unsettled silence. 

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, sets out to fill the gaps in our language of emotion and give a name to feelings we all might experience but don't yet have a word for. It is a beautiful collection of words that are profoundly introspective, tap into so many thoughts, questions, feelings and combinations thereof that humans secretly have in common, creating words for human feelings or experiences that are typically hard to put into words. Despite its title,  the piece is not akin to a regular dictionary. Rather to a thousand beautiful often unrelated short relatable stories that dive deep into emotions in a way that a regular dictionary could never do, managing to capture the essence of so many facets of the human experience.  

Through vivid descriptions and concise narrations, it captures these elusive feelings and rekindles them in such a way that the part of you that was touched once the emotion was initially or previously encountered is touched anew. Through the author's exceptional ability to carefully set up the stage with surrounding circumstances and then put a finger on the precise heart of the sentiment, the reader can re-experience the essence of the emotion, now with the added beauty that comes from knowing that one is not alone in that feeling. That this sensation is not an isolated mystery or a fleeting personal mishap to be reconciled, but rather a profoundly common part of the human experience, shared by many others. A realization that seems to make these obscure emotions rest more comfortably. (Curiously enough there's a word coined therein to describe this phenomenon itself: “deep gut: a resurgent emotion that you hadn’t felt in years, that you might have forgotten about completely if your emotional playlist hadn’t accidentally been left on shuffle.” )

The poetic narrations call up a diverse range of powerful emotions. The text also holds much food for thought between the lines, which it graciously refrains from offering as advice. Helpfully allowing the reader enough room to contemplate and explore to what extent it resonates with them. In its closing the author encourages the reader to practice inventing new words to pin down what it is they are feeling as this practice "loosens your mental frameworks and gives you ownership over the stories you tell yourself." Deservingly enough, a number of the newly coined words introduced in the piece - also brought to life in a vibrant YouTube channel - are finding their way into mainstream usage and internet dictionaries. 

This world is far bigger than the handful of places you've seen or heard about; your inner experience is far richer than the stories you tell yourself; your loved ones are far deeper than the roles they play in your life; strangers are more than just extras to fill out the background...Despite what dictionaries would have us believe, this world is still mostly undefined....Sometimes I wonder if the dictionary itself should never have been invented in the first place, because it gives us a misleading impression of what gives words their meaning, and how stable that meaning really is. By conveying an artificial sense of consensus, dictionaries make it all too easy to believe that our words define us, instead of the other way around." John Koenig - The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.


And now, some of my favorite words from the book: 

  1. Exulansis - the tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it - whether through envy or pity or mere foreignness - which allows it to drift away from the rest of your story, until it feels out of place, almost mythical, wandering restlessly in the fog, no longer even looking for a place to land.

  2. Onism - the awareness of how little of the world you will experience. The frustration of being stuck in just one body, that inhabits only one place at a time, which is like standing in front of the departures screen at an airport, flickering over with strange place names like other people's passwords, each representing one more thing you'll never get to see before you die—and all because, as the arrow on the map helpfully points out, you are here.

  3. Endzoned - the hollow feeling of having gotten exactly what you thought you wanted, only to learn that it didn't make you happy.

  4. Adronitis - frustration with how long it takes to get to know someone - spending the first few weeks chatting in their psychological entryway, with each subsequent conversation like entering a different anteroom, each a little closer to the center of the house - wishing instead that you could start there and work your way out, exchanging your deepest secrets first, before easing into casualness, until you've built up enough mystery over the years to ask them where they're from and what they do for a living.

  5. Sonder - 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.

  6. Dès vu - The awareness that this moment will become a memory. "You can almost feel the presence of your future self, looking back on this moment...So you look around the scene, trying to tell in advance what this moment is going to mean. It’s as if you’re walking through the memory while it’s still happening, feeling for all the world like a time traveler...You are two people, separated by an ocean of time. Part of you bursting to talk about what you saw. Part of you longing to tell you what it all means."

  7. Morii - The desire to capture a fleeting moment">We live our lives in moments: in those rare experiences we stop to notice and carry with us, in the hopes of stringing them together, trying to tell a story. But even in the moment, you can already feel it start to fade. So you try to capture it and convert it into something that will last longer than just a flash...A photo can feel more real than its subject. It lets you build a version of the world that you can take with you."

  8. Enouement - the bitter-sweetness of having arrived here in the future, finally learning the answers to how things turned out but being unable to tell your past self.

  9. Aulasy - the sadness that there's no way to convey a powerful memory to people who weren't there at the time - driving past your childhood home to show it to a friend, or pointing at a picture of a loved one you lost, only to realize that to them it's just another house, just another face.

  10. Klexos  - The Art of Dwelling on the Past. "Your life is written in indelible ink. There’s no going back to erase the past, tweak your mistakes, or fill in missed opportunities. When the moment’s over, your fate is sealed... But if you look closer, the ink never really dries on any of your experiences. They can change their meaning the longer you look at them."

  11. Ringlorn - the wish that the modern world felt as epic as the one depicted in old stories and folktales - a place of tragedy and transcendence, of oaths and omens and fates, where everyday life felt like a quest for glory, a mythic bond with an ancient past, or a battle for survival against a clear enemy, rather than an open-ended parlor game where all the rules are made up and the points don’t matter.

  12. Chrysalism - the amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm, listening to waves of rain pattering against the roof like an argument upstairs, whose muffled words are unintelligible but whose crackling release of built-up tension you understand perfectly.