Uncommonly Lovely Invented Words for What We Feel but Cannot Name – The Marginalian – Fromer Media Group



The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: Uncommonly Lovely Invented Words for What We Feel but Cannot Name

“Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her exquisite manifesto for the magic of real human conversation. Each word is a portable cathedral in which we clarify and sanctify our experience, a reliquary and a laboratory, holding the history of our search for meaning and the pliancy of the possible future, of there being richer and deeper dimensions of experience than those we name in our surface impressions. In the roots of words we find a portal to the mycelial web of invisible connections undergirding our emotional lives — the way “sadness” shares a Latin root with “sated” and originally meant a fulness of experience, the way “holy” shares a Latin root with “whole” and has its Indo-European origins in the notion of the interleaving of all things.

Because we know their power, we ask of words to hold what we cannot hold — the complexity of experience, the polyphony of voices inside us narrating that experience, the longing for clarity amid the confusion. There is, therefore, singular disorientation to those moments when they fail us — when these prefabricated containers of language turn out too small to contain emotions at once overwhelmingly expansive and acutely specific.

Art by Marc Martin from We Are Starlings

John Koenig offers a remedy for this lack in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (public library) — a soulful invitation to “get to work redefining the world around us, until our language more closely matches the reality we experience.”

The title, though beautiful, is misleading — the emotional states Koenig defines are not obscure but, despite their specificity, profoundly relatable and universal; they are not sorrows but emissaries of the bittersweet, with all its capacity for affirming the joy of being alive: maru mori (“the heartbreaking simplicity of ordinary things”), apolytus (“the moment you realize you are changing as a person, finally outgrowing your old problems like a reptile shedding its skin”), the wends (“the frustration that you’re not enjoying an experience as much as you should… as if your heart had been inadvertently demagnetized by a surge of expectations”), anoscetia (“the anxiety of not knowing ‘the real you’”), dès vu (“the awareness that this moment will become a memory”).

Koenig composites his imaginative etymologies from a multitude of sources: names and places from folklore and pop culture, terms from chemistry and astronomy, the existing lexicon of languages living and dead, from Latin and Ancient Greek to Japanese and Māori. He writes:

In language, all things are possible. Which means that no emotion is untranslatable. No sorrow is too obscure to define. We just have to do it.


Despite what dictionaries would have us believe, this world is still mostly undefined.

Art by Julie Paschkis from Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People

There are various words addressing the maddening uncertainty of the two fundamental dimensions of human life: time and love.

n. the bittersweetness of having arrived here in the future, finally learning the answers to how things turned out but being unable to tell your past self.

French énouer, to pluck defective bits from a stretch of cloth + dénouement, the final part of a story, in which all the threads of the plot are drawn together and everything is explained. Pronounced “ey-noo-mahn.”

adj. longing for a sense of certainty in a relationship; wishing there were some way to know ahead of time whether this is the person you’re going to wake up next to for twenty thousand mornings in a row, instead of having to count them out one by one, quietly hoping your streak continues.

Mandarin 确认 (quèrèn), confirmation. Twenty thousand days is roughly fifty-five years. Pronounced “kweh-ruh-nuhs.”

There are words that reckon with the challenges of self-knowledge.

n. the state of not knowing how you really feel about something, which forces you to sift through clues hidden in your own behavior, as if you were some other person — noticing a twist of acid in your voice, an obscene amount of effort you put into something trifling, or an inexplicable weight on your shoulders that makes it difficult to get out of bed.

Ancient Greek ἄγνωστος (ágnōstos), not knowing + διάθεσις (diáthesis), condition, mood. Pronounced “ag-nos-thee-zhuh.”

n. the dread of finally pursuing a lifelong dream, which requires you to put your true abilities out there to be tested on the open savannah, no longer protected inside the terrarium of hopes and delusions that you started up in kindergarten and kept sealed as long as you could.

German Ziel, goal + Schmerz, pain. Pronounced “zeel-shmerts.”

Art by Paloma Valdivia for Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions

There are words that anchor us in both the smallness and the grandeur of existence, its fierce fragility, its devastating beauty; words tasked with holding the hardest truth — that we are children of chance, born of a billion bright improbabilities that prevailed over the infinitely greater odds of nonexistence, living with only marginal and mostly illusory control over the circumstances of our lives and other people’s choices, forever vulnerable to the accidents of a universe insentient to our hopes.

n. the state of being simultaneously entranced and unsettled by the vastness of the cosmos, which makes your deepest concerns feel laughably quaint, yet vanishingly rare.

From galaxy, a gravitationally bound system of millions of stars + agog, awestruck. Pronounced “gal-uh-gawg.”

n. the unease of knowing how quickly your circumstances could change on you—that no matter how carefully you shape your life into what you want it to be, the whole thing could be overturned in an instant, with little more than a single word, a single step, a phone call out of the blue, and by the end of next week you might already be looking back on this morning as if it were a million years ago, a poignant last hurrah of normal life.

Latin crāstinō diē, tomorrow + praxis, the process of turning theory into reality. Pronounced “krak-sis.”

n. a feeling of quiet amazement that you exist at all; a sense of gratitude that you were even born in the first place, that you somehow emerged alive and breathing despite all odds, having won an unbroken streak of reproductive lotteries that stretches all the way back to the beginning of life itself.

Spanish suerte, luck + fuerza, force. Pronounced “soo-wair-zuh.”

n. the frustration of being unable to fly, unable to stretch out your arms and vault into the air, having finally shrugged off the burden of your own weight, which you’ve been carrying your entire life without a second thought.

Lakota mahpiohanzi, “a shadow caused by a cloud.” Pronounced “mah-pee-oh-han-zee-uh.”

Art by Monika Vaicenavičienė from What Is a River?

Emerging from the various entries is a reminder, both haunting and comforting, that despite how singular our experience feels, we are all grappling with just about the same core concerns; that our time is short and precious; that all of our confusions are a single question, the best answer to which is love.

Couple The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows with Consolations — poet and philosopher David Whyte’s lovely meditations on the deeper meanings of everyday words — then revisit artist Ella Frances Sanders’s illustrated dictionary of untranslatable words from around the world and poet Mary Ruefle’s chromatic taxonomy of sadnesses.


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