John Koenig: The language of emotion

John Koenig’s “Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” is on a mission to fill all the holes left in the English language, and give them each a name.

by Nikhil Sreekandan

You know that feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’re there yet? Of course, you do. We’ve all been there. But did you know that there’s a specific word to describe that particular emotion? The Inuit have a word for it called ‘Iktsuarpok’.

The Filipinos, similarly, have a word for when one withdraws their affection towards someone because their feelings have been hurt, called ‘Tampo’.

Describing a phenomenon that would otherwise take a few words or even sentences to describe in English, these foreign words have no direct translations into English.

Screenshot from the website. © John Koenig

Language is constantly evolving and it is something which happens very organically, with new words invented and inducted into the dictionary on a regular basis. The Oxford English dictionary updates itself with 1,200+ words on a quarter-yearly basis. Even so, the English language fails to deliver at times, leaving us speechless, incapable of expressing what we are feeling.

Like when a person learns about an act of senseless violence that leaves them baffled and powerless – evoking a state of exhaustion. It is surely something all of us have felt in the past year with all the senseless violence that has been happening around the world in the name of ISIS, but the English language is incapable of expressing it in a single word.

This is what graphic designer, editor, and voiceover artist, John Koenig is trying to address with “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.” John fills such holes in the English language by giving such emotions a name. In this case, it is kuebiko.

© John Koenig

A project which started with John trying to define the powerful emotion that he felt one night when listening to what he refers to as the ‘most beautiful and haunting melancholy’ in the end credits of Saturday Night Live, “Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” is now seven years old.

Halfway through figuring out a word for the strong emotion that he felt that night, John defined the word sonder – the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. As soon as he published it, he started getting a lot of responses from people saying that ‘thank you for giving voice to something I had felt all my life but there was no word for that.’

John defines his dictionary as  ‘a compendium of invented words’, each original definition written with the aim ‘to fill a hole in the language.’ All the words in the dictionary are new and the author is also particular with the disclaimer that  ‘they are not necessarily intended to be used in conversation, but to exist for their own sake.’

Inventing words is not something new, for example, the English language owes the great playwright Shakespeare for more than 1700 common words that we use today. But the obvious question that arises is: Are the words real?

John, over the years, has found a convincing answer to this question: ‘The meaning is not in the words themselves, we’re the ones who pour ourselves into it,’ so if we want it to be real the word becomes real, it is there because people wanted it to be there.

Also, these aren’t just words that he thought of randomly, each entry is a collage of word roots borrowed from languages all around the world. Here’s an example:

Screenshot from the website. © John Koenig

The much-beloved entry sonder has seen over 44,000 notes from fans on the compendium’s website. The dictionary has a vibrant community where one can pose questions to the author and suggest ideas and even request for a word to describe a certain feeling that doesn’t have a word to describe it.

Screenshot from the website. © John Koenig

Today, “Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” has a powerful presence on the internet with the popular parent website and a widely subscribed YouTube channel, and will soon be available to be bought in hardbound, published by Simon & Schuster.

Ultimately, in this age of LOL, TTYL and FTW, the “Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” is definitely a refreshing and welcome change to our shrinking vocabulary and mind-numbing SMS language.

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