29 Mar 2017

Creating new words for obscure emotions

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:08 pm on 29 March 2017

Have you ever looked across at another car stopped at the traffic lights and wondered what the driver’s story is? Only to have them drive off, a fleeting appearance in your life, but aware that they have a whole world of their own?

US man John Koenig has come up with a name for that feeling: sonder. He says it describes the realization that each passerby is living a life as complex and as rich as your own.

The Dictionary of Oscure Sorrows

The Dictionary of Oscure Sorrows Photo: supplied

Sonder is among the many words Koenig has given to obscure emotions that we feel but are not represented in the English language.

He’s spent the last seven years collecting words from all over the world and documents his creations on his YouTube channel and website, called The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.

Koenig told RNZ’s Jesse Mulligan the word sonder came about as the result of emotion he’d been feeling for years.

“As a kid riding in the backseat of a car, you know you look into the next lane at car’s passing and you see someone lost in thought behind the wheel of their own car, maybe muttering to themselves or singing along to some song that you can’t hear. They’re at the epicentre of their own universe that you have no access to.

“When they take their exit, that’s it. That’s as much as you get of their experience.”

He says there’s a bias in language towards things which are visible and tangible.

“I picture cave people sketching antelopes and bison onto the walls of caves because that’s what they saw every day, but something more ineffable or invisible or, you know, a reflection of the unknown, that’s just going to stand by the wayside.

Language struggles to touch the unknowable, as it’s difficult to talk about, he says.

“We have to go the long way round every time we talk about those things.”

Koenig says the English language is full of holes, which he aims to fill in.

“Once you start thinking of all the holes that we have in the language, I mean not just in emotion just in the flaws that we have in general, it just sort of opens the world.

Koenig considers his work to be more art and says the words are not necessarily serious contributions to the English language.

“They’re not reality, they’re just a reflection of reality.”

The words he comes up with all have their own little back stories.

“Some of them I get really deep in the research.”

Growing up in Geneva, Koenig says he was surrounded by different nationalities, which have inspired him to draw on various languages when coming up with new words.

“There’s a strange mystery and magic to foreign words.”

Beyonce is among Koenig’s fans - her production company contacted him to see if they wanted to collaborate on a concert film, however it didn’t end up working out.

He has seen sonder used in online conversations in earnest and has even overheard it being used in person.

“There’s no stranger feeling than hearing your own neologism take off."

He says it’s people that have meaning and words are just vessels for that.

“There’s just an entire unexplored universe out there of human experiences that I’ve been lucky enough to tap into over the last seven years.”

Words from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows


Wytai is an aconym for When You Think About It.

Koenig says it describes things that appear normal but are actually very strange. For example, the fact that we drink milk from cows is a wytai.


Exulansis is named after a species of albatross and describes a story that’s really important to you, but other people can’t relate to.

“You come back from this trip and you really want to talk about it but no one has the frame of reference to be able to relate to you.”

Koenig says because no one relates to you, you stop talking about it and it’s drifting in the back of your head, never quite landing.


Nighthawks are recurring thoughts that only strike you late at night and are often a looming tasks that need to be completed.

The McFly effect

The feeling of seeing your parents interact with people they grew up with.

“Sort of reboots their personalities into who they were when they were young.”

Koenig says it’s an awareness that they are people just like you, with their own flaws and dreams.


Midsummer is the day of your 26th birthday, which is when you become a ‘proper adult’ and run out of excuses.

“That’s exactly what I was feeling at the time, I think I turned 26… in a way that no one really talked about, it felt like quite a big threshold as you round up to 30. So you’ve got to start owning your life in a way that you can get away with in your early twenties.”

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