Websites to Spent Countless Hours On: The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

05.03.2020

I am not really into poetry. I am able to intellectually appreciate its value, but find it hardly ever touches me emotionally. Interestingly my friend Niko has a similar relationship to fine whisky. He really wants to appreciate its complexity, but can’t help but make an ugly face when he drinks it. Philistine! It is appropriate then, that one of my favorite places for poetic beauty is something considered as rationally sober as a dictionary.

The idea that a dictionary is supposed to be spiritless is surprisingly modern. In his passionate plea against pedestrian dictionaries, titled “You’re probably using the wrong dictionary”, James Somers recites countless examples of definitions taken from the 1913 edition of Webster’s “An American Dictionary of the English Language”. All of them are expansive and vivid — it’s a great pleasure to just look up any word and marvel at the beauty of Webster’s definition. After having read a few of them, the idea of finding delightfully colorful passages in a dictionary does not seem far fetched.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a Tumblr blog by John Koenig A book from Simon and Schuster has been announced as “coming soon”, but this announcement is already a few years old. However the blog has been updated relatively recently in the fall of 2019, so Koenig still seems to be active.. Its goal is to invent new words for emotions that are universally felt, but have no representation yet in our language. Koenig’s gift for finding these “wordless” sentiments is uncanny. And once he’s found one, he gives it a name — usually something based on Latin, Greek or German — mixes in a good bit of existentialist angst and comes up with a definition that stumbles back and forth over the line between kitsch and profoundness.

The appeal of this concept is double-sided. On the one hand there are the novel words of course, but they are just little cherries on top of a much nicer piece of cake: the vivid descriptions of the emotions. Nowadays we are used to dictionaries with plain, even mundane descriptions. This is partly because we rarely use dictionaries anymore, rather than just googling a word, but also because of the type of dictionaries we use. Much like Webster’s original dictionary, the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is not afraid to err on the side of pictoriality. You come for the words, you stay for the definitions.

My three favorite neologisms

“Sonder” is the most-cited word from the website and the one that made it famous. As a native German speaker, I am not quite happy with the choice of the word. To me, “sonder” is just a regular prefix It basically means special or weird and imagining it as a noun just sounds wrong. I think other German words that Koenig has “come up” with, such as “funkenzwangsvorstellung”, work much better. But without doubt “sonder” appears to be the most universal emotion that Koenig has found a word for.

sonder (n.): 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. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: “sonder”

Given how popular this word has become, I wonder if the fact that there has not been a term for this feeling (or any discussion of it) is grounded in the fact that it is technology that makes it visible: I feel this emotion usually when looking at the illuminated windows of a large building or at the people driving in the car beside me, but to a completely different, unknown destination — rarely when merely looking at crowds.

“Occhiolism” feels like a word that is especially well suited for designers. But maybe that is just me, projecting my own limited perspective. I have an insatiable drive to understand how systems work, but sometimes, in rare moments of existentialist absurdity, I feel immensely overwhelmed by the unfathomable complexity around me.

occhiolism (n.): the awareness of the smallness of your perspective, by which you couldn’t possibly draw any meaningful conclusions at all, about the world or the past or the complexities of culture, because although your life is an epic and unrepeatable anecdote, it still only has a sample size of one, and may end up being the control for a much wilder experiment happening in the next room. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: “occhiolism”

Lastly, on a lighter note, I was surprised by the lovely description of the word “midding”:

midding (v.): feeling the tranquil pleasure of being near a gathering but not quite in it — hovering on the perimeter of a campfire, chatting outside a party while others dance inside, resting your head in the backseat of a car listening to your friends chatting up front — feeling blissfully invisible yet still fully included, safe in the knowledge that everyone is together and everyone is okay, with all the thrill of being there without the burden of having to be. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: “midding”

It is a hilariously close description of what I’ve felt at many parties and puts into words what I would not have been able to explain — which is what good dictionaries are supposed to do, isn’t it?

The website

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows — A compendium of invented words written by John Koenig, that aims to fill holes in the language, to give a name to emotions we all feel but don’t have a word for.

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