10 Beautiful, Completely Made-Up Words That Describe Obscure Sorrows

Words can't describe* the joy I feel when I ran across John Koenig's Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows website, which is dedicated to coining new words that define specific types of sadness. Like the pain of realizing that the plot of your life doesn't make sense to you anymore (nodus tollens), the frustration of knowing how easily you fit into a sterotype even if you never intended to (mimeomia), or an imaginary conversation with an old photo of yourself (daguerreologue).

*At least until Koenig starts another website, dedicated to coining new words describing specific types of joys.

The first question people would ask when they run across one of Koenig's words is whether they are made up. The answer is simple: Yes, these are made up words - but they're carefully made up words. Koenig (who "enjoys piano jazz, deep image poetry, wines of indeterminate types, canyons and nostalgia - just the sorts of stuff you'd expect from an expert wordsmith) crafts each words carefully with proper etymology - things like word roots, prefixes, suffixes and so on.

Koenig stated that each original definition aims to fill a hole in the language, to give a name to an emotion we all feel but dont' have a word for.

The second question is implicit in the first one: whether they should use Koenig's made up words in real life. The answer is equally simple: Yes, because aren't all words made up in the beginning? Koenig quoted lexicographer Erin McKean, founder of Wordnik and previous editor in chief of US Dictionaries for Oxford University Press and principal editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary (2nd ed.): "People say to me, ‘How do I know if a word is real?’ You know, anybody who’s read a children’s book knows that love makes things real. If you love a word, use it—that makes it real. Being in the dictionary is an arbitrary distinction; it doesn’t make a word any more real than any other way. If you love a word, it becomes real."

So, without further ado, here are 10 of the most beautiful completely made-up words that describe specific, obscure sorrows:

1. Sonder

n. The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.

2. Vemödalen

n. The frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist—the same sunset, the same waterfall, the same curve of a hip, the same closeup of an eye—which can turn a unique subject into something hollow and pulpy and cheap, like a mass-produced piece of furniture you happen to have assembled yourself.

3. Vellichor

n. The strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time—filled with thousands of old books you’ll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured.

4. Keta

n. An image that inexplicably leaps back into your mind from the distant past.

5. Mal de coucou

n. A phenomenon in which you have an active social life but very few close friends—people who you can trust, who you can be yourself with, who can help flush out the weird psychological toxins that tend to accumulate over time—which is a form of acute social malnutrition in which even if you devour an entire buffet of chitchat, you’ll still feel pangs of hunger.

Koenig explains mal de coucou further when a fan asked the origin of this curious word.

6. Catoptric tristesse

n. The sadness that you’ll never really know what other people think of you, whether good, bad or if at all—that although we reflect on each other with the sharpness of a mirror, the true picture of how we’re coming off somehow reaches us softened and distorted, as if each mirror was preoccupied with twisting around, desperately trying to look itself in the eye.

7. Kenopsia

n. The eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that’s usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet—a school hallway in the evening, an unlit office on a weekend, vacant fairgrounds—an emotional afterimage that makes it seem not just empty but hyper-empty, with a total population in the negative, who are so conspicuously absent they glow like neon signs.

8. Anchorage

n. the desire to hold on to time as it passes, like trying to keep your grip on a rock in the middle of a river, feeling the weight of the current against your chest while your elders float on downstream, calling over the roar of the rapids, “Just let go—it’s okay—let go.”

9. Kairosclerosis

n. The moment you realize that you’re currently happy—consciously trying to savor the feeling—which prompts your intellect to identify it, pick it apart and put it in context, where it will slowly dissolve until it’s little more than an aftertaste.

Koenig explains further: "Kairosclerosis is from the Greek: kairos, “the opportune moment” + sclerosis, “hardening.” The Ancient Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos. Chronos is quantitative and linear—the ticking of the Western clock. Kairos is more qualitative, referring to moments that are indeterminate and sublime, when something special happens, when god speaks or the wind shifts, when a door is left open between one minute and the next. "

10. Heartworm

n. a relationship or friendship that you can’t get out of your head, which you thought had faded long ago but is still somehow alive and unfinished, like an abandoned campsite whose smoldering embers still have the power to start a forest fire.

View more over at John Koenig's Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.


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