Language: It’s a beautiful thing, and powerful, but it can only go so far. There are times when it feels like it fails us, unable to do justice to some of life’s most intense experiences. The depth and scope of our emotions are what make us truly complex beings, and this can really leave others, not to mention ourselves, guessing what are we feeling in certain moments.
Graphic designer John Koenig has written a collection of invented words, called “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” that highlights some of the gaps in our language. It addresses those times when we experience complex emotions that have no definition, and can leave us feeling like we’re the only person who’s ever experienced them.
Reading some, I have to say, I admired the way he captured an exact experience of a feeling that I probably brushed off because I simply could not put a word to it. For example, having the awareness that the experience you’re in now will become a memory — he calls that Dés Vu. Or, the intensity of looking someone in the eye: Opia. The below is one of my favourites, and I’ve been feeling it a lot lately:
n. a feature of modern society that suddenly strikes you as absurd and grotesque—from zoos and milk-drinking to organ transplants, life insurance, and fiction—part of the faint background noise of absurdity that reverberates from the moment our ancestors first crawled out of the slime but could not for the life of them remember what they got up to do.
Koenig beautifully illustrates other types of feelings we have but cannot put words to (until now) in this YouTube video. What I found fascinating is how many people connected in the comments. One person shared how happy she was to know someone else felt the same, which sparked a whole thread of people agreeing that, while there is no word in the English language for the experience of looking into a mirror and feeling absolutely no kinship with the face that stares back at you, there really should be. They even suggested Koenig make a whole video on that.
Reading all his new words and the feelings they elicited, I thought about the times that I couldn’t quite articulate what was happening inside of me. Emotions are our guide posts — a mechanism to show us what’s good for us, and what’s not. But so many of us have become so caught up in our thoughts, we no longer know how to interpret these signs for their messages.
A common interaction between people goes something like this:
– “How are you?”
But what does ‘fine’ even mean? Is that really an accurate snapshot we can give someone when what they are really asking is, what is alive in you? The question “How are you?” really means, “What state are you currently in, and what’s going on inside of you?” Coming back to the present moment and allowing our feelings to be the gateway we enter could be a very beneficial thing because we are connecting to ourself, and therefore responding more authentically.
How to Know What’s Happening Inside?
I know people often do a ‘check-in’ to see how they are feeling — I myself do this maybe once or twice a day. It is such a great self-awareness builder. Checking-in is all part of self-care and acknowledging what is living inside of you at the moment.
You’re getting to know yourself better as you ask yourself questions and keep a loving curiosity about what you’re feeling and why you’re feeling it. Acknowledging your emotions helps move them, but we can only know them if we’re paying attention to what’s happening in our body.
The HeartMath Institute has done some incredible research into the intuitive power of the heart and the importance of the kind of emotional ‘field’ we radiate when we are in certain states. Rollin McCraty, the head of research at HeartMath, emphasizes the benefit of deeply understanding our feelings:
The importance of gaining a deeper understanding of the emotional system, has become increasingly recognized as an important scientific undertaking, as it has become clear that emotions underlie the majority of the stress we experience, influence our decisions, provide the motivation for our actions, and create the textures that determine our quality of life.
Koenig has gone deeply inside himself and come out with a profound understanding of his human experience, and others can relate. I can’t help but wonder, how much of what he found came from his thoughts, and how much from signs and signals from his body?
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.
n. the realization that each random passerby 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.
adj. finding a person so attractive it actually kinda pisses you off.
n. the amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm, listening to waves of rain pattering against the roof like an argument upstairs, whose muffled words are unintelligible but whose crackling release of built-up tension you understand perfectly.
n. weariness with the same old issues that you’ve always had—the same boring flaws and anxieties you’ve been gnawing on for years, which leaves them soggy and tasteless and inert, with nothing interesting left to think about, nothing left to do but spit them out and wander off to the backyard, ready to dig up some fresher pain you might have buried long ago.
n. the awareness of the smallness of your perspective, by which you couldn’t possibly draw any meaningful conclusions at all, about the world or the past or the complexities of culture, because although your life is an epic and unrepeatable anecdote, it still only has a sample size of one, and may end up being the control for a much wilder experiment happening in the next room.
n. a kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details—raindrops skittering down a window, tall trees leaning in the wind, clouds of cream swirling in your coffee—briefly soaking in the experience of being alive, an act that is done purely for its own sake.
n. the realization that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore—that although you thought you were following the arc of the story, you keep finding yourself immersed in passages you don’t understand, that don’t even seem to belong in the same genre—which requires you to go back and reread the chapters you had originally skimmed to get to the good parts, only to learn that all along you were supposed to choose your own adventure.
n. the desire to care less about things—to loosen your grip on your life, to stop glancing behind you every few steps, afraid that someone will snatch it from you before you reach the end zone—rather to hold your life loosely and playfully, like a volleyball, keeping it in the air, with only quick fleeting interventions, bouncing freely in the hands of trusted friends, always in play.
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.
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.
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.
n. the feeling of returning home after an immersive trip only to find it fading rapidly from your awareness—to the extent you have to keep reminding yourself that it happened at all, even though it felt so vivid just days ago—which makes you wish you could smoothly cross-dissolve back into everyday life, or just hold the shutter open indefinitely and let one scene become superimposed on the next, so all your days would run together and you’d never have to call cut.
n. a recurring thought that only seems to strike you late at night—an overdue task, a nagging guilt, a looming and shapeless future—that circles high overhead during the day, that pecks at the back of your mind while you try to sleep, that you can successfully ignore for weeks, only to feel its presence hovering outside the window, waiting for you to finish your coffee, passing the time by quietly building a nest.
n. to find yourself bothered by someone’s death more than you would have expected, as if you assumed they would always be part of the landscape, like a lighthouse you could pass by for years until the night it suddenly goes dark, leaving you with one less landmark to navigate by—still able to find your bearings, but feeling all that much more adrift.
n. the feeling that no matter what you do is always somehow wrong—that any attempt to make your way comfortably through the world will only end up crossing some invisible taboo—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.
n. a feast celebrated on the day of your 26th birthday, which marks the point at which your youth finally expires as a valid excuse—when you must begin harvesting your crops, even if they’ve barely taken root—and the point at which the days will begin to feel shorter as they pass, until even the pollen in the air reminds you of the coming snow.
n. frustration with how long it takes to get to know someone—spending the first few weeks chatting in their psychological entryway, with each subsequent conversation like entering a different anteroom, each a little closer to the center of the house—wishing instead that you could start there and work your way out, exchanging your deepest secrets first, before easing into casualness, until you’ve built up enough mystery over the years to ask them where they’re from, and what they do for a living.
n. a kind of psychological exoskeleton that can protect you from pain and contain your anxieties, but always ends up cracking under pressure or hollowed out by time—and will keep growing back again and again, until you develop a more sophisticated emotional structure, held up by a strong and flexible spine, built less like a fortress than a cluster of treehouses.
n. the kind of unnoticed excellence that carries on around you every day, unremarkably—the hidden talents of friends and coworkers, the fleeting solos of subway buskers, the slapdash eloquence of anonymous users, the unseen portfolios of aspiring artists—which would be renowned as masterpieces if only they’d been appraised by the cartel of popular taste, who assume that brilliance is a rare and precious quality, accidentally overlooking buried jewels that may not be flawless but are still somehow perfect.
n. an image that somehow becomes lodged deep in your brain—maybe washed there by a dream, or smuggled inside a book, or planted during a casual conversation—which then grows into a wild and impractical vision that keeps scrambling back and forth in your head like a dog stuck in a car that’s about to arrive home, just itching for a chance to leap headlong into reality.
n. a moment that seemed innocuous at the time but ended up marking a diversion into a strange new era of your life—set in motion not by a series of jolting epiphanies but by tiny imperceptible differences between one ordinary day and the next, until entire years of your memory can be compressed into a handful of indelible images—which prevents you from rewinding the past, but allows you to move forward without endless buffering.
n. a moment of awareness that someone you’ve known for years still has a private and mysterious inner life, and somewhere in the hallways of their personality is a door locked from the inside, a stairway leading to a wing of the house that you’ve never fully explored—an unfinished attic that will remain maddeningly unknowable to you, because ultimately neither of you has a map, or a master key, or any way of knowing exactly where you stand.