That sentence from the introduction of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows sums up what this book is about. A dictionary of “made-up” words (I know, as if there are words growing naturally in the wild somewhere), it gives voice to the thoughts and feelings that we have every day but didn’t know anyone else shared. Part linguistics, part philosophy, part self-help, and a (very little) part humor, this book will make you feel, above all else, that somebody out there gets you.
Author John Koenig has compiled this dictionary of his own made-up words to fill the inevitable gaps in our language. Until now, no-one has thought to coin a term for that feeling of shame you have after revealing a little too much about yourself (foilsick) or the sudden awareness that you’re more than half-way through your vacation (halfwise). It’s kind of like the sniglets that were popular in the 1980s, but where sniglets made you chuckle or groan or roll your eyes in amusement, Koenig’s coinages kick you in the solar plexus and knock the wind out of you. I imagine that everyone will alight on different words that are the most meaningful to them. For me etherness–the wistful feeling of looking around at a gathering of loved ones, all too aware that even though the room is filled with warmth and laughter now, it won’t always be this way–was nothing short of devastating. What’s remarkable, though, is knowing that friends, acquaintances, and strangers have had the same feeling, even though we never had a word for it.
That’s not to say there aren’t some chuckles in this collection. Koenig calls “an activity that you’ve adored since you were a kid whose enjoyment dissolves on contact with hard-core fanatics’ ferocious obsession with technique” an amuse-douche, which gave me a snigger in spite of the gloomy undercurrent. Not every word will resonate with every individual. I can’t say I’ve ever experienced viadne, alienation from the crude machinery of your own body, but nementia, the post-distraction effort to recall the reason you’re feeling particularly anxious or angry or excited, is such a common occurrence that I really should adopt that term into my vocabulary.
Koenig’s terms are far from arbitrary. He pulls inspiration from words that exist in English, Spanish, Greek, Japanese, Dutch, Armenian, Latin, and Macedonian, to name a smattering. He plays with idioms, scientific names, acronyms, famous people, and in at least one instance, the movie Back to the Future. Some of his definitions require just one short sentence; others comprise pages of text and accompanying collages. The care he puts into his definitions is impressive, yet the true beauty of his project is the ability to reach across emotional distances–to enable people he’s never met to breathe, “Someone else feels the way I feel. I’m not alone.”
This language project boasts a website, a YouTube channel, and a TED Talk, but as a lover of words, a bound hard copy of definitions feels correct (Is there a word yet for people who are devoted to hard-bound books?). I recommend this book for anyone who either loves language or who has ever felt alone in their thoughts. The Book of Obscure Sorrows may help you feel less hem-jawed; that is, “trapped inside your own language, struggling to shake away the baggage weighing down certain words.”