The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

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The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a website and YouTube channel, created by John Koenig, that coins and defines neologisms for emotions that do not have a descriptive term.[1] The dictionary includes verbal entries on the website with paragraph-length descriptions and videos on YouTube for individual entries. The neologisms, while completely created by Koenig, are based on his research on etymologies and meanings of used prefixes, suffixes, and word roots.[2] The terms are often based on "feelings of existentialism"[3] and are meant to "fill a hole in the language", often from reader contributions of specific emotions.[4][5] Some videos involve a large number of photographs, such as the video for Vemödalen, which uses an "almost exhausting—yet seamless—fusion of 465 similar photos from different photographers". Other videos are more personal, such as Avenoir, which involves a "collage of his own home movies to piece together an exploration of life’s linearity".[6][7]

An official book for the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows was released by Simon & Schuster on November 16, 2021.[8][9]


The dictionary was first considered in 2006 when Koenig was a "student at Macalester College in Minnesota" and was attempting to write poetry. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows was the idea he came up with that would contain all the words he needed for his poetry, including emotions that had never been linguistically described.[10] The popularity of the website and web series began to grow in June 2015 after a list of twenty-three words from the dictionary began to be shared on multiple social media sites.[11]

Notable words[edit]

vemödalen 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.

John Koenig, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

Several of the neologisms presented in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, especially those that have an accompanying video, have received attention and interest. The term Vemödalen focuses on the lack of creativity within photography due to the existence of similar photographs having been taken in the past. However, the video also focuses on how it is "inevitable that the “same” image will be captured by different individuals" while it is also correct that "just because some things seem similar, their uniqueness is not annulled".[12][13] Using a quote from Walt Whitman, the video points out that something being unique will always be based on adding to what came before and that every photo ever made is being added to the story of photographs that all people are collaborating on.[14]

The term Sonder has been noted as well for its relation to other people, its definition meaning "the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own".[15][16] Sonder has also been appropriated by various companies for use such as the name of a bike brand[17] and a mental therapy marketplace, Sondermind,[18] as well as the title of a video game.[19] The third album from indie pop artist Kaoru Ishibashi was named Sonderlust after this term from the dictionary and references the separation from his wife and his attempts to understand her life.[20][21] Sonder is the fourth studio album by English progressive metal band, TesseracT.[8]

Multiple words from the dictionary, such as ellipsism, énouement, and onism, were used as titles for various cocktails served at the Chicago restaurant Knife.[22] Similarly, an art gallery exhibit for the works of Michael Sagato in Los Angeles uses words from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows to title each of his art pieces and to reference the meaning behind each piece.[23]

Critical reception[edit]

The Times of India referred to the dictionary as a "delightful website for etymologists and wordsmiths".[24] Sharanya Manivannan, writing for The New Indian Express, described the dictionary as a "beautiful experiment on the fine line between babble and Babel."[25] Eley Williams, writing for The Guardian on the topic of fictional dictionaries, described Koenig's project as "by turns stirring and playful, providing lexical and linguistic plugs for the lacunae of everyday expression".[8]


  1. ^ Trowbridge, Cecily (May 1, 2015). "The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows Tumblr Gives Us These 7 Words That Don't Exist In The English Language But Definitely Should". Bustle. Retrieved October 1, 2015.
  2. ^ Christensen, Jake (March 23, 2015). "The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows". Iowa State Daily. Retrieved October 1, 2015.
  3. ^ Beigelman, Victor (August 6, 2015). "Ever Wonder If There's A Word For Your Existential Thoughts? This Guy Probably Invented It". A Plus. Retrieved October 1, 2015.
  4. ^ Moss, Rachel (April 29, 2015). "Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: Man Creates Language To Describe Emotions We Have No Words For". Huffington Post. Retrieved October 1, 2015.
  5. ^ Kim, Mina. "Forum From the Archives: Complex Emotions Find Names in 'The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows'". KQED (in American English).
  6. ^ Harrington, Tom (December 4, 2014). "This new webseries is for the depressed neurotic in all of us". The Daily Dot. Retrieved October 2, 2015.
  7. ^ Furlong, Josh (November 10, 2014). "Video shows photos taken by 465 different photographers of similar views". KSL. Retrieved October 2, 2015.
  8. ^ a b c Williams, Eley (May 27, 2019). "From anemoia to zagreb: how 'fictionaries' are liberating the word". The Guardian. Retrieved July 12, 2021.
  9. ^ "Amazon: The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows". Amazon. Retrieved 2021-11-22.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  10. ^ Webber, Rebecca (January 5, 2016). "Odd Emotions". Psychology Today. Retrieved February 24, 2016.
  11. ^ Byrne, Nicola (June 25, 2015). "People are going crazy for this list of emotions people feel, but can't explain". Retrieved October 2, 2015.
  12. ^ Arici, Alexandra (November 12, 2014). "Watch: Vemödalen Is the Fear of Capturing the Same Photographs as Everybody Else". Softpedia. Retrieved October 2, 2015.
  13. ^ Dove, Jackie (December 4, 2014). "Is there any unique vision left in the world?". The Next Web. Retrieved October 2, 2015.
  14. ^ Chia, Aleena (December 2, 2014). "Vemödalen and The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows". Antenna. University of Wisconsin–Madison. Retrieved October 2, 2015.
  15. ^ "Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: Sonder". Poets & Writers. April 2, 2014. Retrieved October 2, 2015.
  16. ^ Lichtenegger, Franz (July 3, 2015). "Meine Gefühle sind komisch". Vice. Retrieved October 2, 2015.
  17. ^ Orton, Matt (October 22, 2015). "Sonder: a new bike brand from British outdoors experts Alpkit". BikeRadar. Retrieved October 27, 2015.
  18. ^ Tan, Gillian (July 28, 2021). "SonderMind Reaches Unicorn Status as Mental-Health Bets Surge".
  19. ^ Benson, Julian (November 13, 2013). "Sonder has you dive from one character's head to another's trying to save the day". PCGamesN. Retrieved October 27, 2015.
  20. ^ Rangarajan, Sahana (October 20, 2016). "Reflections on 'Sonderlust,' a talk with Kishi Bashi". The Daily Californian. Retrieved January 18, 2017.
  21. ^ Shin, Pearl (October 21, 2016). "Kishi Bashi supports young musicians at Chicago concert". University of Illinois at Chicago. Retrieved January 18, 2017.
  22. ^ Sula, Mike (January 11, 2017). "For a small steak house, Knife is big on showmanship". Chicago Reader. Retrieved January 18, 2017.
  23. ^ Rivera, Erica (October 14, 2016). "Artist Profile: Michael Sagato: Visualizing Obscure Sorrows". CraveOnline. Retrieved January 18, 2017.
  24. ^ "The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows". The Times of India. September 17, 2015. Retrieved October 2, 2015.
  25. ^ Manivannan, Sharanya (November 2, 2015). "Obscure Interpretations of Human Reflections". The New Indian Express. Retrieved February 24, 2016.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]