If you’ve ever had a feeling indescribable in words, you might enjoy a peek into John Koenig‘s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a seven-year literary project designed to, as Koenig puts it, “fill a hole in the language—to give a name to emotions we all might experience but don’t yet have a word for.” Each of his words gives voice to a particular feeling, an experience, a sudden realization–some corner of the human experience as yet unnamed.

This is the sort of need that can sometimes be filled with a word from another language. Hiraeth, for instance, is a Welsh word, and along with its Portuguese cousin saudade, attempts to describe the poignancy of a longing for the utterly unattainable, whether that’s a disappeared homeland, a long-lost love, or an indefinable thing that has yet to exist.

Here at Hiraeth, we were irresistibly attracted to a particular entry in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:

“Sonder:  n. The realization that everyone has a story.”

Somewhere along the line, Koenig began making these beautiful little vignette videos to illustrate his dictionary entries. Here’s the one for Sonder.


Everyone has a story. You, me, every person in line at the supermarket, the stranger whose eyes met yours for just a moment as you passed on the street. Every refugee, every immigrant, every person who has ever chosen or been forced to move from here to there, or there to here. Finding words for those stories and sharing them is what we do at Hiraeth, which is why we look at John Koenig as something of a kindred spirit.

“Words are not real.  They don’t have meaning, we do.”

In a wonderful TED Talk last year, The Conquest of New Words, Koenig talks about his project with a profundity belied by its surface whimsicality. His ideas are partly about breaking away from the confines of labels. If we are not careful, he says, words become less about meaning and more about how we “package the world.”  The result is that we end up boxing ourselves in and allowing words to define us instead of the other way around. We withdraw into our own communities and languages instead of trying to reach for richer dialogue.

“If we stop trying to oversimplify the interior storm that all of us are facing; the confusion, the vulnerability and how complicated the world really is- then we could feel a little more comfortable in our skin, and we could take the power back from our words.”

For Koenig, we are more than the categories that define us. We are not one person, we are many people wrapped up into one, with a complexity of ideas and emotions. So he creates new words to describe the obscurest parts of human emotion, and to help us break free from definitions and categories that hold us prisoner to someone else’s prejudices. For more, in Koenig’s own inimitable words, watch the entire TED Talk below.

Photo credit: Alan Zeers