A Dictionary of Words Invented to Name Emotions We All Feel, But Don’t Yet Have a Name For: Vemödalen, Sonder, Chrysalism & Much More

Philoso­phers have always dis­trust­ed lan­guage for its slip­per­i­ness, its overuse, its propen­si­ty to deceive. Yet many of those same crit­ics have devised the most inven­tive terms to describe things no one had ever seen. The Philosopher’s Stone, the aether, mias­mas—images that made the inef­fa­ble con­crete, if still invis­i­bly gaseous.

It’s impor­tant for us to see the myr­i­ad ways our com­mon lan­guage fails to cap­ture the com­plex­i­ty of real­i­ty, ordi­nary and oth­er­wise. Ask any poet, writer, or lan­guage teacher to tell you about it—most of the words we use are too abstract, too worn out, decayed, or rusty. Maybe it takes either a poet or a philoso­pher to not only notice the many prob­lems with lan­guage, but to set about rem­e­dy­ing them.

Such are the qual­i­ties of the mind behind The Dic­tio­nary of Obscure Sor­rows, a project by graph­ic design­er and film­mak­er John Koenig. The blog, YouTube chan­nel, and soon-to-be book from Simon & Schus­ter has a sim­ple premise: it iden­ti­fies emo­tion­al states with­out names, and offers both a poet­ic term and a philosopher’s skill at pre­cise def­i­n­i­tion. Whether these words actu­al­ly enter the lan­guage almost seems beside the point, but so many of them seem bad­ly need­ed, and per­fect­ly craft­ed for their pur­pose.

Take one of the most pop­u­lar of these, the invent­ed word “Son­der,” which describes the sud­den real­iza­tion that every­one has a sto­ry, that “each ran­dom passer­by is liv­ing a life as vivid and com­plex as your own.” This shock can seem to enlarge or dimin­ish us, or both at the same time. Psy­chol­o­gists may have a term for it, but ordi­nary speech seemed lack­ing.

Son­der like­ly became as pop­u­lar as it did on social media because the theme “we’re all liv­ing con­nect­ed sto­ries” already res­onates with so much pop­u­lar cul­ture. Many of the Dictionary’s oth­er terms trend far more unam­bigu­ous­ly melan­choly, if not neurotic—hence “obscure sor­rows.” But they also range con­sid­er­ably in tone, from the rel­a­tive light­ness of Greek-ish neol­o­gism “Anecdoche”—“a con­ver­sa­tion in which every­one is talk­ing, but nobody is listening”—to the major­ly depres­sive “pâro”:

the feel­ing that no mat­ter what you do is always some­how wrong—as if there’s some obvi­ous way for­ward that every­body else can see but you, each of them lean­ing back in their chair and call­ing out help­ful­ly, “cold­er, cold­er, cold­er…”

Both the coinages and the def­i­n­i­tions illu­mi­nate each oth­er. Take “Énoue­ment,” defined as “the bit­ter­sweet­ness of hav­ing arrived in the future, see­ing how things turn out, but not being able to tell your past self.” A psy­chol­o­gy of aging in the form of an elo­quent dic­tio­nary entry. Some­times the rela­tion­ship is less sub­tle, but still mag­i­cal, as in the far from sor­row­ful “Chrysal­ism: The amni­ot­ic tran­quil­i­ty of being indoors dur­ing a thun­der­storm.”

Some­times, it is not a word but a phrase that speaks most poignant­ly of emo­tions that we know exist but can­not cap­ture with­out dead­en­ing clichés. “Moment of Tan­gency” speaks poignant­ly of a meta­phys­i­cal phi­los­o­phy in verse. Like Son­der, this phrase draws on an image of inter­con­nect­ed­ness. But rather than tak­ing a per­spec­tive from within—from solip­sism to empathy—it takes the point of view of all pos­si­ble real­i­ties.

Watch the video for “Vemö­dalen: The Fear That Every­thing Has Already Been Done” up top. See sev­er­al more short films from the project here, includ­ing “Silience: The Bril­liant Artistry Hid­den All Around You”—if, that is, we could only pay atten­tion to it. Below, find 23 oth­er entries describ­ing emo­tions peo­ple feel, but can’t explain.

1. Son­der: The real­iza­tion that each passer­by has a life as vivid and com­plex as your own.
2. Opia: The ambigu­ous inten­si­ty of Look­ing some­one in the eye, which can feel simul­ta­ne­ous­ly inva­sive and vul­ner­a­ble.
3. Mona­chop­sis: The sub­tle but per­sis­tent feel­ing of being out of place.
4 Énoue­ment: The bit­ter­sweet­ness of hav­ing arrived in the future, see­ing how things turn out, but not being able to tell your past self.
5. Vel­li­chor: The strange wist­ful­ness of used book­shops.
6. Rubato­sis: The unset­tling aware­ness of your own heart­beat.
7. Kenop­sia: The eerie, for­lorn atmos­phere of a place that is usu­al­ly bustling with peo­ple but is now aban­doned and qui­et.
8. Mauer­bauer­trau­rigkeit: The inex­plic­a­ble urge to push peo­ple away, even close friends who you real­ly like.
9. Jous­ka: A hypo­thet­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion that you com­pul­sive­ly play out in your head.
10. Chrysal­ism: The amni­ot­ic tran­quil­i­ty of being indoors dur­ing a thun­der­storm.
11. Vemö­dalen: The frus­tra­tion of pho­to­graph­ic some­thing amaz­ing when thou­sands of iden­ti­cal pho­tos already exist.
12. Anec­doche: A con­ver­sa­tion in which every­one is talk­ing, but nobody is lis­ten­ing
13. Ellip­sism: A sad­ness that you’ll nev­er be able to know how his­to­ry will turn out.
14. Kue­biko: A state of exhaus­tion inspired by acts of sense­less vio­lence.
15. Lach­esism: The desire to be struck by dis­as­ter – to sur­vive a plane crash, or to lose every­thing in a fire.
16. Exu­lan­sis: The ten­den­cy to give up try­ing to talk about an expe­ri­ence because peo­ple are unable to relate to it.
17. Adroni­tis: Frus­tra­tion with how long it takes to get to know some­one.
18. Rück­kehrun­ruhe: The feel­ing of return­ing home after an immer­sive trip only to find it fad­ing rapid­ly from your aware­ness.
19. Nodus Tol­lens: The real­iza­tion that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you any­more.
20. Onism: The frus­tra­tion of being stuck in just one body, that inhab­its only one place at a time.
21. Libero­sis: The desire to care less about things.
22. Altschmerz: Weari­ness with the same old issues that you’ve always had – the same bor­ing flaws and anx­i­eties that you’ve been gnaw­ing on for years.
23. Occhi­olism: The aware­ness of the small­ness of your per­spec­tive.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“Tsun­doku,” the Japan­ese Word for the New Books That Pile Up on Our Shelves, Should Enter the Eng­lish Lan­guage

The Largest His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of Eng­lish Slang Now Free Online: Cov­ers 500 Years of the “Vul­gar Tongue”

How a Word Enters the Dic­tio­nary: A Quick Primer

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

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Comments (10)
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  • Terry Walsh says:

    While a few of these words are gen­uine­ly use­ful, many seem cob­bled togeth­er by peo­ple who know noth­ing about language(s).

    Mind you, anec­doche is not ‘Greek-ish’; it is not only gen­uine­ly Greek, but is also a very clever ‘ecdoche’ (inter­pre­ta­tion). Mauer­bauer­trau­rigkeit (‘wall-builder’s depres­sion’) is also won­der­ful.

  • Aera Shirwin says:

    Could you make a word for a con­stant desire to improve, or always be bet­ter than you were yes­ter­day?

  • Aera Shirwin says:

    I sug­gest Impe­rus.

  • Ashok Gaire says:

    I wan­na erase my all past.and i have so much desire to show to all.who make me this. Seri­ous­ly i don’t have any­one. I’m total­ly lone­ly, bro­ken her­at

  • Emily Howell says:




  • Kacie says:

    I need help under­stand­ing what it is exact­ly I’m feel­ing because I don’t feel any­thing but every­thing at the same time and when I try to explain it , I f can’t describe it at all. I’m con­stant­ly look­ing for expla­na­tions on what it is I’m feel­ing , Ii don’t like not being able to under­stand the brain and why peo­ple think the way they think , always feel like I lit­er­al­ly need to know it all , ???

  • Jacob says:

    Is there such feel­ing for the thought of exis­tence? I under­go a feel­ing, or maybe a sen­sa­tion in which I pon­der about exis­tence, life, emo­tion, thought, mind, body, and reli­gion. Also is there a feel­ing for pon­der­ing about the after­life?

  • Tonya says:

    How about a word for the real­iza­tion that you can only be here now doing what you are doing now because of every exact deci­sion that every per­son on the plan­et made through­out time. That if any­one any­where any­time had made one dif­fer­ent choice that the world would be com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent. I looked at my friend the oth­er day and had this epiphany. Like if I had cho­sen a dif­fer­ent col­lege we would­n’t have met, but also not if I had­n’t quit that one job, or if I had­n’t went to that restau­rant that day, or if our par­ents nev­er met etc. So many ways that we could have nev­er met, but only one way that we could.

  • Cindy says:

    I’m try­ing to find the word for how I feel when I read details or imagery in a poem/short sto­ry that I think I have felt exact­ly myself. Like when an author details a weath­er phe­nom­e­non or sur­round­ings in a spe­cif­ic way that makes me feel like I have expe­ri­enced that exact con­cept or state of being? An exam­ple is Sin­clair Ross’ short sto­ry “The Paint­ed Door” in which the author describes the iso­la­tion and oth­er­world­ly feel­ing of the char­ac­ter being alone on her farm dur­ing a win­ter storm in the 1930s. I strong­ly relate my own life expe­ri­ences with how the imagery of the snow drift­ing was described in the sto­ry and it felt as if the author took the imagery and words straight from my brain.

  • Arisu says:

    Yūgen . The japan­ese word for the aware­ness of the uni­verse & all it’s won­ders and mys­ter­ies, while high­light­inf the bit­ter­sweet feel­ings we expe­ri­ence when con­tem­plat­ing the com­plete tran­sience of things. And the feel­ing of all that some­thing, which we can’t put into words.

    Yūgen means “The Obscure”, so yeah. The sen­sa­tion and aware­ness of the obscu­ri­ty that is the Uni­verse. Which evokes those hard to describe emo­tions.

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