‘The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows’ Book by John Koenig

I first discovered John Koenig’s long-running Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows site (and YouTube channel) way back in 2014, and I love the idea of it just as much today as I did then. If you’ve never heard of it, Koenig describes it as “a dictionary of made-up words for emotions that we all feel but don’t have the words to express.”

Take the word sonder, for example:

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.

I still adore that one.

Anyway, after a dozen years of putting this excellent thing out into the world, he’s finally published the dictionary in book form!

Now you have the chance to crack open a real, physical tome and look up the exact word for obscure feelings like…

  • lachesism — The desire to be struck by disaster, hoping it will shake up your life.
  • anemoia — A pang of nostalgia for a time you’ve never actually experienced, like you might feel when looking through someone else’s old photos.
  • kenopsia — The eerie atmosphere of a place that is usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet.

In the book’s trailer above, Koenig describes the project beautifully (bold emphasis mine):

Its mission is to shine a light on the fundamental strangeness of being a human being — defining the world as it is, and the world as it could be. Closeness and distance, the passage of time, and the wilderness inside your head. And all the others around you, who are each going through the same thing.

This 300-page dictionary is divided into six chapters, with definitions arranged in no particular order but grouped into themes: the outer world, the inner self, the people you know, the people you don’t, the passage of time, and the search for meaning. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s intro:

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.

There are also plenty of otherworldly illustrations and other imagery accompanying the definitions throughout, which are a treat on their own.

Honestly, this book is one that should be in everyone’s home, and would be a perfect thing to gift to people this holiday season.

Get the book in these formats: