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The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

Bringing order to the wilderness inside our heads

Curiously beautiful and unique, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig is that rare thing, a book you didn’t know you needed but one destined to bag a lifelong space on your bookshelf. A dictionary in six parts, Koenig’s labour of love is a compendium of new words for emotions. Woven from fragments of a hundred different languages, these are words that give expression to those thoughts and feelings that hover ‘on the cusp of language.’ In the vein of established words like schadenfreude and hygge, they convey the universal experiences that we cannot adequately articulate alone.

By no means a bookful of sadness, Koenig’s poetic definitions range from the melancholic to the gently humorous. Illuminating our shared intensity of experience, they range from everyday observations to the innermost torments of the soul, each entry complete with etymological explanation.

Take for example, his perspective on the thrumming of the humble dishwasher, which he names plata rasa.

The lulling sound of a running dishwasher, whose steady maternal shushing somehow puts you completely at peace with not having circumnavigated anything solo.’

Derived from the Latin plata, plate + rasa, blank or scraped clean.

It’s impossible not to smile with recognition at this observation, a companion to Koenig’s definition of nyctous, the quiet contentment of being the only member of the household awake in the dark early hours, cosy with a cuppa and laptop (word derived from Nyctocereus, a type of cactus that blooms only at night).

Moving on to matters more introspective, we encounter the Germanic altschmerz (alt, old + schmerz, pain), which denotes a feeling of utter fatigue at dealing with anxieties and worries you’ve been grappling with forever. Just the same old same old, into infinity.

Candling is a particularly resonant word, relating to the habit of taking stock of one’s life every birthday, in terms of goals and accomplishments to date. Koenig links it to an incubation practice used in hatcheries, whereby an egg is backlit with a candle flame, to check for a chick’s growth (or sad absence).

The loveliest words are those with a bittersweet tinge. Consider aulasy, the sadness that comes from realising you can never adequately convey a powerful memory to someone who wasn’t there at the time, e.g. showing your childhood home to a loved one and realising that to them it’s just another house (Aulasy, a contraction of auld lang syne, Scottish for ‘times long past’).

Also appriesse, wishing you’d known a particular person before they died (perhaps a grandparent) and conjuring them to life through stories and photos. Derived from the Latin appretiare, to appraise + ad pressum, after.

For older word-nerds, Latin-rooted tirosy conveys conflicted feelings of admiration and envy for shining youth. All that energy and glorious potential, which you certainly applaud but occasionally wish to nobble. Shame on you.

Let’s hope these feelings don’t arrive in conjunction with ghough, which is alarmingly onomatopoeic ‘to the sound of a devouring maw,’ and denotes ‘a hollow place in your psyche that can never be filled.’

A splendidly captivating book and the perfect gift for the logophile in your life.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig is published by Simon and Schuster, 288 pages.

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