Can’t you name this feeling? Try consulting ‘The Dictionary of Dark Sorrows’ | Culture & Leisure
Feelings are fleeting, but finding words for them brings solidity – even solidarity – at times that are both bubbling and dreary. Witness “languishing”, a word that flew over social networks after a New York Times article called it “the dominant emotion of 2021”. Naming this diffuse unease was strangely heartwarming.
Words for Dark Emotions remind us that we have company in our most intimate moments, writes John Koenig in his prologue to “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” a collection of words he invented (or reimagined, in certain cases). Koenig is taken in by the “pains, demons, vibrations, joys and urges that buzz in the background of everyday life,” he writes. Take for example “zielschmerz”, the beat of terror that sometimes strikes when you are about to make a long held dream come true. Or maybe you’ve savored a nyctous moment, which Koenig defines as “feeling quietly delighted to be the only one awake in the middle of the night”.
Koenig began inventing and compiling such words on his website in 2009, a foray followed by a YouTube channel and TED Talk. Some of Koenig’s creations, in Pinocchio style, came to life and escaped into the world. Its neologism “to probe”, which Koenig called “the realization that every random passerby lives a life as lively and complex as yours”, is named after, among others, several studio albums, a hotel company and of restaurants in California. , Wisconsin and Kosovo.
Some of Koenig’s words are cobbled together from snippets of European languages, while others are simply taken from the global basket of used but still useful vocabulary. For example, Koenig’s adjective “idle” – “feeling grateful to be stranded in a place where there is little you can do” – is borrowed from the original name of John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Leafing through the book can give you a start of recognition. After posting “probe” on his website nearly a decade ago, Koenig writes that he has received an avalanche of emails from readers thanking him for putting words into a sentiment they had. felt but they had never named. Entries in the dictionary range from concise definitions to mini-essays on the anxieties of modern life.
All is not fanciful, and a philosophy of language slips into the dictionary. Koenig, who works in advertising, encountered ideas such as an undergraduate student at Macalester College and remains fascinated with the intricacies of the language. The words “work like a kind of psychological programming that helps shape our relationships, our memory, even our perception of reality,” writes Koenig. He quotes the aphorism of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein according to which “the limits of my language are the limits of my world”. In the most extreme version of this reasoning – a theory called linguistic determinism which is almost entirely avoided by linguists – our mother tongues trap our minds, leaving us only able to understand the feelings and concepts that our languages allow. This may not be the case: think of the readers that Koenig met who immediately acknowledged their previously anonymous experiences reflected in words like “probing.”
A scaled-down version of this idea, however, is current with 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 mental habits. Neuroscientist Kristen Lindquist, who heads the Carolina Affective Science Lab at the University of North Carolina, has found that words help crystallize vivid emotional experiences into something more recognizable. Psychologist Tim Lomas has created an interactive lexicography of emotional words in languages ranging from Akkadian to Zulu, claiming that expanded sentimental vocabularies enrich our inner lives. (Lomas’ lexicography includes several entries from Koenig’s writings.)
And it’s undeniably exciting to find words for our strangest feelings. “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” is more compelling when Koenig sheds light on isolated corners of human experience. “In language, anything is possible,” he wrote. “No sorrow is too obscure to be defined.” Some of these words have special resonance for a world rocked by a pandemic that has left many people extremely isolated.
Take ‘kenopsia’, the eerie, resonant feeling of a bustling place, like a shopping mall or downtown boulevard, when it’s suddenly emptied of its inhabitants. Or “solysium”, a kind of delirium resulting from spending too much time alone.
In a sense, all words are made up by someone at some point. It’s an idea that gives living, breathing languages like ours their precarious charm: the things we say at the breakfast table, or whisper into a lover’s ear, are simply made up words that we have found it useful enough to keep them in circulation. “A word is only real if you want it to be,” writes Koenig. It is a defense of the endless creative possibilities of language and a fitting coda to an enchanting book of invented words come true.