In “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” Artist John Koenig Names Feelings that Leave Us Speechless

It may be a misconception, it may be a cliché: I’m not a German speaker—but reading translator’s introductions to, say, Kant, Hegel or Goethe has convinced me that their language does a much better job than English at capturing those oddly specific twilight moods and compound feelings that so often escape definition. Then again, English absorbs, cannibalizes, appropriates, steals, and bastardizes words wherever it can find them, driving lexicographers and grammar purists mad.

Graphic designer and filmmaker John Koenig does all of these things in his “Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” a blog project in which he names emotions that otherwise leave us speechless. In his short video above, he illustrates one of his words, “Sonder,” or “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own…”—something like the shock of sudden empathy that shakes us out of navel-gazing. It’s an emotion I’ve experienced, without knowing what to call it.

This being an “obscure sorrow,” there’s more to it than empathy—in Koenig’s poetic video, “sonder” relates to the infinite number of overlapping stories, in which each of us feels we are the hero, others supporting cast or extras. In a state of “sonder,” we suddenly occupy all of those roles at once, our screen time diminishing as others take the lead. After watching Koenig’s film, I’m thinking “sonder” is a portmanteau of “sublime” and “wonder.” It’s a mystical philosophy contained within a single made-up word.

Some other Koenig coinages: “Ruckkehrunruhe,” “nodus tollens,” “adronitis,” “rigor samsa”….. I leave it to you to visit Koenig’s Dictionary and learn what these words mean. It’s an experience well worth your time.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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  • Ivan says:

    I agree. The first time I saw this word and its definition, I was numb for a while. It’s both shocking and horrifying to know people owe the same complexity of life with you. It’s true, seemingly unnecessary to prove. And finally, it makes me feel how small and unimportant my ego is. I guess that’s the origin of my fear…

  • Daniel says:

    I have shared in the same awe, but what is most profound is… that there have been multitudes of lives that have come and gone before we had ever become aware, that brings weight to the significance of each and every person who is alive with us today. Of all people in human history, past and future, that this small sampling of souls with whom we share the days, are also experiencing this short earth adventure in the same time and space as we, is no small thing. It’s almost shocking that most people don’t better get along, get to know, you.

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