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John Koenig creates new terms for familiar, unnamed emotions

John Koenig - Sputnik

I love the internet. It can be a treasure chest of wonderful inspiration. Today I came across an absolute gem: The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrow. Oh my, what a thought-provoking project this is!

As someone who has started to write poetry I have become aware of the challenges we face as human beings in recording our thoughts, our emotions and our deepest longings in the limited vocabulary of whichever language we speak. We have hundreds of thousands of words to choose from, yet how often, when faced with the extremes of our life experiences, do we find ourselves admitting ‘there are no words’? John Koenig has set out to fill this gap – to create new words that capture those deeply profound moments.

One of my favourite phrases from his dictionary is ‘Moment of Tangency’. He defines this as ‘a glimpse of what might have been’, and explains that it is about lives lived in parallel. The video that he has created to explore this concept is beautiful yet bittersweet. Watching it makes you realise how much more there could be, and how insular our own lives are in this vast world of humanity that we inhabit.

What I also love about John’s project is that he has created a feast of inspiration for creative writers. Take the word ‘flashover’ for example. He defines it as ‘the moment a conversation becomes real and alive, which occurs when a spark of trust shorts out the delicate circuits you keep insulated under layers of irony, momentarily grounding the static emotional charge you’ve built up through decades of friction with the world’. How many short stories or poems could that generate? Plus it is so beautifully written. I adore the phrase ‘decades of friction with the world’ – again, that just sparks the imagination and helps to birth ideas for new characters and situations.

There is so much I could say in praise of this dictionary. I know I will be visiting it often, drawing on the amazing creativity and insight of this man. For now though, I want to thank him for coming up with the word ‘sonder’. I often sit in coffee shops or restaurants and wonder about the life stories of the people around me. How have they arrived in the same place as me? Where are they going? Who else do they connect to? John created the word ‘sonder’ to describe that experience, but he does it in a far more poetical way than I ever could. I salute him for it.

Sonder – ‘the realization that each random passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.’

Do go and visit his website.


This article was first published on Sharon Clark’s excellent blog