Tuesday, January 25, 2022


A friend just leant me one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in a long time. Titled The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig, it’s based on the premise that we can’t wholly know/feel/ experience/ understand that which we have no language for. Every advance in human consciousness or change in human society carries with it new words necessary to understanding the new territory. For example, when Carl Jung ventured into uncharted landscapes of the human psyche that Freud never visited, a new vocabulary was created that any aspiring Jungian needs to comprehend. New words (or new meanings to old words) include archetype, anima, animus, collective unconscious, enantiodromia, quaternity and my favorite, syzygy (an archetypal pairing of contrasexual opposites, symbolizing the communication of the conscious and unconscious minds). 


When it comes to human emotion and our language to describe it, we’re mostly stuck in the kindergarten class of happy, sad, angry, bored, proud, ashamed, fearful, joyful, anxious, confused, the kinds of things you can carve on pumpkin faces or send as emojis in your phone texts. But when it comes to the nuances and subtleties of the emotional landscape, we are often at a loss for words. 

Koenig introduces his book noting the words in other languages that have no English equivalent— the German shadenfreude(joy in the misfortune of others), the Spanish duende (a soulful artistic quality expressing and evoking heightened passion and anguish), the Brazilian Portuguese saudade ( a quality of nostalgia feeling the bitter inside the sweet and the sweet inside the bitter), the Danish hygge (feeling the coziness of enjoying the small pleasures of life with friends and family)  and the Bantu ubuntu ( the sense of a shared humanity, that I am because we are). 


Koenig’s book tries to fill in the gap in our present-day English by making up words that capture in one or a few words the more subtle layers of human feeling. Not randomly making them up, but often combining two existing words in a new way. Two examples:


Looseleft— adj: feeling a sense of loss upon finishing a good book, sensing the weight of the back cover locking away the lives of characters you’ve gotten to know so well. (From loose-leaf, a removable sheet of paper + left, departed.)


Slipfast— adj: longing to disappear completely; to melt into a crowd and become invisible, so you can take in the world without having to take part in it—free to wander through conversations without ever leaving footprints, free to dive deep into things without worrying about making a splash.(From slip, to move or fly away in secret +fast, fortified against attack.)


Inspired by the idea, I made up two of my own:


Prokeepsakination—verb: putting off going through old boxes filled with nostalgic keepsakes for fear of spending countless days in that rabbit hole. (From procrastinate, to put off doing things + keepsake, an object that was once meaningful and important to you.)


Fixination: — noun: The state of wondering why your 5-disc CD changer works randomly and unreliably without ever replacing it or attempting to fix it. (From fascination, a heightened state of intrigue + fix, a determination to make something work again.) 


Once you get started, there’s no end! I’m working on a term for the opposite of shadenfreude  that means “envy of the good fortune of others.” (Following the German, maybe neidglucken? Neid - envy. gluck- fortune). And what word would describe the sensation of having a few thousand friends on Facebook and hundreds of friends around the world, but having trouble thinking of who to invite to the movies in San Francisco? 


I could imagine re-configuring this entire Blog to this theme, but I believe John Koenig has already done it. I’m feeling some neidglucken here. 

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