For as long as we can remember, humans have been trying to explain things. It’s an inherent curiosity in all of us that never rests. It has taken us on a journey to unravel the many mysteries of the world and universe and then tagging them to cooked up words we call language and vocabulary.
“If the world is indeed round, why is it that we don’t fall off it?” Isaac Newton found out why and named it gravity from the Latin word “Gravitas”, meaning “weightiness” or “having weight”. Other times, people discover things and name them after other people. The Higgs boson, Murphy’s law, Doppler effect are just a few that come to mind.
In that epic rush to explain the world around us and beyond, we’ve forgotten to look inwards to really decipher something universal—feelings. The folks behind last year’s Inside Out attempted to explain the idea of mixed feelings in a pre-adolescent Midwestern girl named Riley but audiences walked away thinking more about Bing Bong than anything else.
What would you call the feeling you get when it suddenly occurs to you how easily you fit into a stereotype even if you never intended to? Frustration doesn’t even begin to describe it. The truth is, we have way more feelings than words to describe them.
Well, writer and artist John Koenig is filling those holes in our language with his Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. According to him, it is a compendium of invented words to define those odd twilight moods and compound feelings that we don’t yet have words for.
We read the whole damn thing to give you a typical day in your life and the feelings you never really explained properly.
8.21am—You’re sitting on your favourite seat at the end of the train carriage. You live so far away from the city that you know it is a seat you can almost call your own in your daily hour-long commute to work. You look up. You spot an elderly lady in need of your seat. “Damn, when did the train get so crowded?” You ask yourself. You instinctively get up for the lady who gives you a cursory nod and a faint smile, as do some of the other passengers who you’re now standing among.
Xeno n. the smallest measurable unit of human connection, typically exchanged between passing strangers—a flirtatious glance, a sympathetic nod, a shared laugh about some odd coincidence—moments that are fleeting and random but still contain powerful emotional nutrients that can alleviate the symptoms of feeling alone.
8.22am—Feeling mildly proud of yourself and suddenly aware of your surroundings, you look around the train carriage and your fellow passengers; some browsing the news on your mobile phones, while others engaged in quiet conservations. You get a slight pang of existentialism. You are but one person in the vastness that is Earth.
Sonder n. the realisation 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.
11.37am—Your boss asks you into his office to discuss your pitch you had emailed him yesterday. He goes on about how unoriginal your ideas are and begins berating you for your lack of originality. You’re numb to it. After all, this happens at least twice a week. You look at him. His mouth is moving furiously but you don’t hear a single word. You are as engrossed as you are uneasy as you continue to stare into his eyes.
Opia n. the ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable—their pupils glittering, bottomless and opaque—as if you were peering through a hole in the door of a house, able to tell that there’s someone standing there, but unable to tell if you’re looking in or looking out.
11.46am—You get back to your desk. You just listened to your boss go on about how shit of an employee you are. You stare out of your window and spot a flock of birds flying past and wonder how liberating and worry-free a life as a bird is. You log into Facebook and browse through your feed that’s filled with videos and articles of individuals who followed their dreams and are currently living very fulfilled lives.
Trumspringa n. the temptation to step off your career track and become a shepherd in the mountains, following your flock between pastures with a sheepdog and a rifle, watching storms at dusk from the doorway of a small cabin, just the kind of hypnotic diversion that allows your thoughts to make a break for it and wander back to their cubicles in the city.
1.17pm—You’re sitting in your office pantry and eating your lunch with a bunch of interns. You didn’t feel like eating alone at your desk and decided to join the interns and see what kids are concerned with these days. It’s been five minutes since you started your meal and already you’ve heard about how intern Stephanie has been ignoring her friend Vanessa for months because Vanessa has been flirting with her crush Vincent. Intern Peter thinks that Vanessa’s a bitch, while intern Michelle is trying to change the subject by getting everyone to watch a clip of Kanye West. You make a mental note to never join the interns for lunch again.
Monachopsis n. the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place, as maladapted to your surroundings as a seal on a beach—lumbering, clumsy, easily distracted, huddled in the company of other misfits, unable to recognise the ambient roar of your intended habitat, in which you’d be fluidly, brilliantly, effortlessly at home.
2.31pm—You’re still working on the pitch that your boss hates so much. You are drained. You look into your boss’ office and see him laughing and talking on the phone. “Must be another one of those potential clients,” you whisper to yourself. You get upset looking at the man who constantly demands creativity when he himself got to where he is today by copying other people’s ideas.
Hiybbprqag n. the feeling that everything original has already been done, that the experiment of human culture long ago filled its petri dish and now just feeds on itself, endlessly crossbreeding old clichés into a radioactive ooze of sadness.
3.58pm—You’ve been working on your pitch for what feels like six hours. You haven’t looked at the clock the whole day but you’re certain it’s almost time to knock off. You look up and notice you still have a couple of hours till the end of the day. “Fucking hell!” you yell, before slouching into your seat as you become aware of your colleagues sitting beside you.
Lalalalia n. the realisation while talking to yourself that someone else is within earshot, which leads you to crossfade into mumbled singing, an auditory sleight of hand that distracts the audience from the exposed platform under your persona while you prepare to saw your confidence in half.
7.57pm—You’re standing at the airport. You’re here to pick up your wife after her week-long work trip. You’ve been looking forward to seeing her after going through a really crappy week. You stare at the departure screen as flickers over weird places that you’ve never heard of. You suddenly feel a longing to be there.
Onism n. the frustration of being stuck in just one body, that inhabits only one place at a time, which is like looking at strange places with names like other people’s passwords, each representing one more thing you’ll never get to see before you die.
8.13pm—After a while, your wife emerges from the gates and greets you with a big hug. She shows you a knitted sweater and tells you she got delayed in the airport 2 days ago and spent the entire time knitting you a sweater. “I never knew you could knit,” you say. “Yeah, I thought you always knew.” You wonder how many more things you have yet to discover about your wife.
Gnossienne n. a moment of awareness that someone you’ve known for years still has a private and mysterious inner life, and somewhere in the hallways of their personality is a door locked from the inside, a stairway leading to a wing of the house that you’ve never fully explored—an unfinished attic that will remain maddeningly unknowable to you, because ultimately neither of you has a map, or a master key, or any way of knowing exactly where you stand.
11.31pm—You’re lying in bed, trying to sleep. You’re trying to figure out why your wife seems annoyed with you. As a matter of fact, she’s been like this ever since you walked into the house. “God dammit!” You jerk up, as your wife turns to face you. “I’m sorry I didn’t feed your goldfish this whole week.”
Nighthawk n. a recurring thought that only seems to strike you late at night—an overdue task, a nagging guilt, a looming and shapeless future—that circles high overhead during the day, that pecks at the back of your mind while you try to sleep, that you can successfully ignore, even forget, for weeks, only to feel its presence hovering outside the window, waiting for you to finish your coffee, passing the time by quietly building a nest.