“I read the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything.” — Comedian Steven Wright, epigraph to “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows”

A while back, I wrote a piece about a few of the words that had been added to Dictionary.com. One of those words was “sonder,” which is “the realization that each random passerby is the main character of their own story, in which you are just an extra in the background.”

Sonder was coined, along with many others, by John Koenig for his mesmerizing recent book “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.” The DOS (if we can refer to the Oxford English Dictionary the OED, then I can call this one the DOS) got its start as a podcast in 2014 before becoming a bestselling book two years ago.

“It’s calming,” writes Koenig in his book’s introduction, “to learn there’s a word for something you’ve felt all your life but didn’t know was shared by anyone else.” With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few of these words, which I think you will find to be as mesmerizing as I did.

Along with the definition of sonder, this unique book contains several other words that define some of the things we think and wonder about the people around us. For instance, if you’ve ever wondered what someone was thinking when your eyes met briefly in passing then you were experiencing what Koenig calls “opia,” or “the ambiguous intensity of eye contact.”

And, if you pondered how good or bad that person’s life might be as you walked on following that fleeting moment, what you were wondering about was their “socha,” or “the hidden vulnerability of others.”


On a more personal level, the DOS contains copious names for the feelings that swirl around our brains every day. Let’s say that one day you check “the til,” which is “the reservoir of all possible opportunities still available to you at this point in your life.” As you’re checking the balance in your account, you’re suddenly struck with the feeling of “koinophobia,” or “the fear that you’ve lived an ordinary life.”

As you ponder the fact that you might possibly be ordinary, you’re overcome with the feeling of “onism,” which is “the frustration of being stuck in just one body, that inhabits only one place at a time. The awareness of how little of the world you’ll experience.”

So you hastily book a trip to an exotic, faraway place only to experience what the DOS calls “vulture shock,” that “nagging sense that, no matter how many days you spend exploring a foreign country, you never quite manage to step foot in it.”

Even worse, this realization is followed quickly by a sense of “dès vu” which is “the awareness that this moment will become a memory.” And sure enough, shortly after returning home, your recollections of your recent trip begin to fall victim to that memory thief “rückkehrunruhe” or “the feeling of returning from an immersive trip only to notice it fading rapidly from your awareness,” almost as if it had been a dream.

The flip side of that feeling of having lived an ordinary life is your “lutalica,” or “the part of your identity that doesn’t fit into categories.” One part of that identity might be something called “foreclearing,” or “the act of deliberately refusing to learn the scientific explanations of things out of fear that will ruin the magic.”

Another part of your identity could be the longing to wander off your career track in pursuit of a simpler life,” which Koenig calls “Trumspringa.” Or maybe “slipfast” would be more to your liking because that’s “the longing to disappear completely; to melt into a crowd and become invisible, so you can take in the world without having to take part in it.”

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at jlwitherell19@gmail.com.

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