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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:


The Atlas of True Names Restores Mod­ern Cities to Their Mid­dle Earth-ish Roots

The His­to­ry of the Eng­lish Lan­guage in Ten Ani­mat­ed Min­utes

Oxford Schol­ars Name Top Ten Irri­tat­ing Phras­es

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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