The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a compendium of new words for emotions. Its mission is to shine a light on the fundamental strangeness of being a human being—all the aches, demons, vibes, joys, and urges that are humming in the background of everyday life.
"Creates beautiful new words that we need but do not yet have."
—John Green, New York Times bestselling author of The Fault in Our Stars
It’s a calming thing, to learn there’s a word for something you’ve felt all your life but didn’t know was shared by anyone else. It’s even oddly empowering—to be reminded that you’re not alone, you’re not crazy, you’re just an ordinary human being trying to make your way through a bizarre set of circumstances.
That’s how the idea for this book was born, in that jolt of recognition you feel when learning certain words for emotions, especially in languages other than English: hygge, saudade, duende, ubuntu, schadenfreude. Some of these terms might well be untranslatable, but they still have the power to make the inside of your head feel a little more familiar, at least for a moment or two. It makes you wonder what else might be possible—what other morsels of meaning could’ve been teased out of the static, if only someone had come along and given them a name.
Of course, we don’t usually question why a language has words for some things and not others. We don’t really imagine we have much choice in the matter, because the words we use to build our lives were mostly handed to us in the crib or picked up on the playground. They function as a kind of psychological programming that helps shape our relationships, our memory, even our perception of reality. As Wittgenstein wrote, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”
But therein lies a problem. Language is so fundamental to our perception, we’re unable to perceive the flaws built into language itself. It would be difficult to tell, for example, if our vocabulary had fallen badly out of date, and no longer described the world in which we live. We would feel only a strange hollowness in our conversations, never really sure if we’re being understood.
The dictionary evolves over time, of course. New words are coined as needed, emerging one by one from the test lab of our conversations. But that process carries a certain bias, only giving names to concepts that are simple, tangible, communal, and easy to talk about.
Emotions are none of these. As a result, there’s a huge blind spot in the language of emotion, vast holes in the lexicon that we don’t even know we’re missing. We have thousands of words for different types of finches and schooners and historical undergarments, but only a rudimentary vocabulary to capture the delectable subtleties of the human experience.
Words will never do us justice. But we have to try anyway. Luckily, the palette of language is infinitely expandable. If we wanted to, we could build a new linguistic framework to fill in the gaps, this time rooted in our common humanity, our shared vulnerability, and our complexity as individuals—a perspective that simply wasn’t there when most of our dictionaries were written. We could catalog even the faintest quirks of the human condition, even things that were only ever felt by one person—though it is the working hypothesis of this book that none of us is truly alone in how we feel.
In language, all things are possible. Which means that no emotion is untranslatable. No sorrow is too obscure to define. We just have to do it.
This is not a book about sadness—at least, not in the modern sense of the word. The word sadness originally meant “fullness,” from the same Latin root, satis, that also gave us sated and satisfaction. Not so long ago, to be sad meant you were filled to the brim with some intensity of experience. It wasn’t just a malfunction in the joy machine. It was a state of awareness—setting the focus to infinity and taking it all in, joy and grief all at once. When we speak of sadness these days, most of the time what we really mean is despair, which is literally defined as the absence of hope. But true sadness is actually the opposite, an exuberant upwelling that reminds you how fleeting and mysterious and open-ended life can be. That’s why you’ll find traces of the blues all over this book, but you might find yourself feeling strangely joyful at the end of it. And if you are lucky enough to feel sad, well, savor it while it lasts—if only because it means that you care about something in this world enough to let it under your skin.
All words in this dictionary are new. Some were rescued from the trash heap and redefined, others were invented from whole cloth, but most were stitched together from fragments of a hundred different languages, both living and dead. These words were not necessarily intended to be used in conversation, but to exist for their own sake. To give some semblance of order to the wilderness inside your head, so you can settle it yourself on your own terms, without feeling too lost—safe in the knowledge that we’re all lost.