There are few things (and people) that just get you, you know? You’re reading words that echo familiar to those inside your head but with way more eloquence. And you’re sobbing unto your keyboard in your cubicle at work thinking “Yes! Yes, you get it. You get me!”
Or maybe not that melodramatic. But I had a similar experience when I discovered The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows some years ago. It’s been an introspective ride since then.
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, by John Koenig, is full of words that aren’t ‘real’; so you won’t find them in your Oxford Dictionary – but the meanings ascribed to these words couldn’t be more real. Here’s a worthy read on the etymology of these words.
People say to me, ‘How do I know if a word is real?’ You know, anybody who’s read a children’s book knows that love makes things real. If you love a word, use it. That makes it real. Being in the dictionary is an arbitrary distinction; it doesn’t make a word any more real than any other way. If you love a word, it becomes real. – Erin McKean
Here are some of my favourite words from this dictionary:
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.
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.
n. the moment you realize that you’re currently happy—consciously trying to savor the feeling—which prompts your intellect to identify it, pick it apart and put it in context, where it will slowly dissolve until it’s little more than an aftertaste.
n. the sadness that you’ll never really know what other people think of you, whether good, bad or if at all—that although we reflect on each other with the sharpness of a mirror, the true picture of how we’re coming off somehow reaches us softened and distorted, as if each mirror was preoccupied with twisting around, desperately trying to look itself in the eye.
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.
n. a phenomenon in which you have an active social life but very few close friends—people who you can trust, who you can be yourself with, who can help flush out the weird psychological toxins that tend to accumulate over time—which is a form of acute social malnutrition in which even if you devour an entire buffet of chitchat, you’ll still feel pangs of hunger.
n. the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time—filled with thousands of old books you’ll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured.
n. an emotion you haven’t felt in years that you might have forgotten about completely if your emotional playlist hadn’t been left on shuffle—a feeling whose opening riff tugs on all your other neurons like a dog on a leash waiting for you to open the door.
n. the phenomenon of observing your parents interact with people they grew up with, which reboots their personalities into youth mode, reverting to a time before the last save point, when they were still dreamers and rascals cooling their heels in the wilderness, waiting terrified and eager to meet you for the first time.
n. a feeling of resonant connection with an author or artist you’ll never meet, who may have lived centuries ago and thousands of miles away but can still get inside your head and leave behind morsels of their experience, like the little piles of stones left by hikers that mark a hidden path through unfamiliar territory.
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.
I know this Dictionary isn’t new, but it’s something I keep going back to. If you’re as much a fan as I am, what are your favourite words?