You Could Look It Up

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig. New York: Simon & Schuster. 288 pages. $16.
Cover of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

John Koenig’s new book, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, lives up to its description as a “compendium of new words for emotions.” To many readers, the most recognizable of his neologisms is surely sonder—“the realization that each random passerby is the main character of their own story, in which you are just an extra in the background”—which Koenig introduced years ago and has since found its way into the popular lexicon because of, one assumes, the ubiquity of the realization.

Yet any dictionary is also an exhibition of language’s status as a—or, depending on which theorist you consult, the—fundamental element of human experience. Initially entranced by its powers, we soon notice the ways language fails us (the experience of waldosia,“a condition in which you keep scanning faces in a crowd looking for a specific person who would have no reason to be there,” is intimately familiar to Koenig while totally alien to myself.) And in language’s many failures, we begin to suspect that it profoundly reduces our raw experience and tarnishes the mystery of all phenomena—enough so to inspire what Koenig calls aimonomia:

the fear that learning the name of something—a bird, a constellation, an attractive stranger—will somehow ruin it, inadvertently transforming a lucky discovery into a conceptual husk pinned in a glass case, leaving one less mystery fluttering around in the universe.

In late 2021, Koenig and I discussed these and other topics over the phone.

TREVOR QUIRK: You mentioned that this book has been twelve years in the making. Was there an initiating moment or a time you can trace back to and say “that was the beginning of the book”?

JOHN KOENIG: I went to Macalester College in Minnesota and was taking a creative writing class. I was sitting in the library trying to think of ideas for a poem, and a title that popped into my head was “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.” I had this vivid image of what that would be. It would be written in the 1890s or something and be leatherbound with pages that fell apart when you turned them. The writing would involve long, entangled Latinate etymologies that diagnosed every single quirk of the human experience.

I love this image of the book sitting on a pedestal. And when you open it up it smells like old binding glue…

Yeah, I’m a big romantic about books. I found the idea of the Dictionary so comforting, in a weird way, because it would legitimize every bit of confusion I had about the world. It arrived to me as a title, so eventually I figured: Why not write the book?

The book aims to give new words to experiences, notions, or sensations that haven’t yet been named. And a big part of this project is how you constructed the words, and so there’s an enormous variety of languages that this book draws from: Japanese, Latin, Armenian, Mandarin, Lakota, North Frisian—and I’m just naming a few. I was curious how you came to etymology. Have you always been a student of language?

I love languages and I think I always have. When I was seven or eight years old, I would sit and read the dictionary because there was something comforting about it. It’s like an answer key to the universe, or that is what it purports to be. I grew up in Geneva, Switzerland and went to an international school with one-hundred-and-four different nationalities. So I was surrounded by tons of different languages. Language is such a vector for culture and perspective that I was always reminded of how many different ways there are to look at the world.

The act of reading this book was quite unique, because it felt like I was perusing these different phenomena and being implicitly asked if I had ever experienced them myself. I started putting a check mark next to words where I thought Oh, I’ve absolutely felt this before. But occasionally I would find words that I did not recognize. One example was waldosia.

I was about to mention that word. That’s one that people have mentioned never experiencing.

Because these words are being offered to the reader for recognition, I wondered what you would make of readers failing to do so?

In a way, I think that’s beautiful. We all have these little, powerful experiences that we don’t necessarily share with others. Waldosia has happened to me many times. But when I’m writing from my own little corner of the world, it’s impossible to tell which experiences will resonate because at a certain point it’s a numbers game. You have to figure out what millions of people are feeling.

Did you imagine any of these words belonging to a particular language, or no language at all?

I don’t know what belonging to a language even really means. Like, does the word weekend belong to French? This is a debate in France. I think I’ve convinced myself that because English is my native language that these words are all English, which is notorious for plundering languages from around the world.

You’re keeping the tradition alive. Did you ever worry that some of the words you invented already had a meaning, or existed in some dusty corner of a lexicon?

I’ve had fascinating conversations with people about sonder because that’s been the most prominent word I’ve coined so far. Someone would say to me “I know what you’re trying to do, and it’s poetic and that’s nice, but the Nazis had Sonderkommando (Sonder means “special” in German) and so I think what you’re doing is really harmful because you are diluting that particular meaning.”

My response is to ask why I should defer to the monsters of history because they had a certain interpretation of something. I think language should be fluid, never fully owned, never fully defined. That’s how it’s always been. Every language has plundered shamelessly from other languages. I don’t want to say that nothing is sacred in terms of language, because that makes me a little nervous. But I try to have that attitude. It’s all on the table. We’re building sandcastles in the air here.

I consider myself a fairly grave person, so I don’t want you to think that I disapprove of the fact that the majority of these definitions describe sensations or experiences that are ambivalent, distressing, sad, confusing. What was it about this project that led you to what we think of as negative emotions like sadness?

In my introduction, I say that this is not a book about sadness. The original definition of sadness, from its etymology, is fullness, which is more value neutral. To put judgements on the feelings we have—either negative or positive—is not something I chose to do with this book. These words are things that made me feel strongly. There are many different reactions you can have to the world, and the most interesting and richest feelings are going to be complicated—not just pure bliss. No one takes a photo of a clear blue sky. It’s the clouds that make the sky interesting.

But terms like anxiety, sorrow, longing, grief, and confusion show up again and again in the book. I will grant you there are exceptions, and I agree that it can be reductive to separate emotions into a dichotomy. But surely there’s a reason we speak of emotions in this way . . .

This question is surprising me a lot because I was concerned that this book wasn’t sad enough. I thought people would read the book and want to find some sense of order and chaos, basically. If I presented them visions of just order, no one’s going to resonate with that. They’re not going to feel anything. It’s the chaotic and confusing that is begging to be defined. And so, when you’re inventing new words, I think you’re naturally going to gravitate toward things that are complicated, chaotic, ambiguous, or unknowable—and that’s the bread and butter of this book. But on the other hand, if I try to think, Is nostalgia a sadness or a joy? To me, it’s a joyful grief.

Many, if not most, of the words and their attendant definitions describe our awareness of our ignorance of other people, society, the universe, ourselves. Do you feel like the book required you to be more alienated from things than you already were?

From my perspective, that kind of distance is a reality that we all try hard to ignore through a variety of different little tricks and distractions. A word like sonder is just a reminder of something that we all know abstractly, but we tend to forget, which is that there is just an enormous ocean of complexity all around you, that you can barely skim the surface of. I think that theme keeps showing up in my work, but it’s not an expression of my personality so much as just a reality that I’m trying to shine a light on.

When I think of being alienated from things, from others, from oneself, I usually don’t feel very good. It’s interesting. It seems like maybe you have a genuine reverence for mystery in a way that I don’t. It fascinates me; but I don’t revere it.

To me, it’s just hugely comforting to think that we’re all just muddling through life. None of us really knows what’s going on. None of us really knows why we do the things we do. It opens things up and shakes the structures and frameworks that we tend to just forget aren’t really real. And that’s a little postmodern, but so be it.

The book begins to sketch a portrait of you, a concrete picture of your life and history. This was a small but delightful part of the dictionary for me. In these definitions, the reader learns that you’re the kind of person who is familiar with anti-aliasing, or knows what a gobo is, or what the anaphase is in the biological cell cycle. I felt like we get these tiny peeks into your life.

If you read between the lines, you can figure out I was a theater kid in high school, or that I spent the first ten years of writing this book as a graphic designer. I’m sure there are tons of other details I’m not even aware of, frankly. Even though I’m trying to create something halfway universal, or at least relatable, some details will emerge because of who I am.

Do you feel like naming or describing an experience destroys or damages anything about it?

I do. That’s one of my words, actually: aimonomia. I think that’s a valid thing to worry about, because I think mystery is kind of sacred to me. It’s something we should cherish. But I also think if a word helps us process the world or talk about the world, it really can’t be all bad. It’s in the balance.

Another big theme for me in the book was ineffability, which was interesting because this book, being a dictionary, is kind of a testament against our inability to express ourselves.

Yeah, I’m casting doubt on the power of language to be able to help us, while offering words that try to do exactly that. I mean, we can express ourselves clearly, but it’s a lot harder than it should be. In a way, I’d say this book is a little bit of a fantasy of what I wish language was naturally inclined to do. These aren’t in the end real words; in the way people normally think of words. I found this quote from Virginia Woolf, where she basically said, “look, you have to use the palette you were given. You can’t just go and invent words, because a word is not a single and separate entity; words belong to each other.” The whole thing was basically a rebuttal of the book. She made a compelling argument, really. And I don’t necessarily disagree.

In the afterword, you talked about a state of hyperdefinition in society, the idea that the world we talk about feels more real to us than the world we actually live in. To illustrate, you mention the classic distinction between the menu and the meal, the map and the territory, but I was wondering what you specifically had in mind.

When I was writing about hyperdefinition, I was talking about something in my own head that I wanted to shake myself out of, where I would go on vacation and the idea of Vacation and what that meant would be at the forefront of my mind. So I couldn’t actually be present because of the universe of associations and expectations that particular word added to the experience.

But I give some examples in the book: stereotyping people, or gamifying relationships, or when every work of art becomes a commentary on genre. These are things that I find myself doing all the time, because I get so wrapped up in the words that I’m just completely forgetting the reality in front of me. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, you know, whether Iron Man is technically a superhero, or whether Pluto is a planet. But somehow that has infected the larger cultural debates right now.

Your vacations remind of Don DeLillo’s image of the “most photographed barn in America,” where there’s this aura of expectation of experience before it. It seems like you’re concerned that our language can become an opaque barrier between us and our experience.

I have an ambiguous relationship with language, I guess. It’s just so tremendously important to me, but, at the same time, I’m aware of how much it dilutes and oversimplifies and reduces the enormity of experience—just sort of boils it down to something much more manageable. I wish I could turn that off.

Trevor Quirk is a writer living in Asheville, NC.