A Minnesota writer invents new words to help us process our collective malaiseJan 01, 2022 07:57AM ● By Editor
This might just be us at Minnesota Now, but we suspect 2021 did not turn out the way anyone thought it would when it began one year ago. It’s been a shifting, tangled year — one that started with hope and is ending in a muddle.
We might label the emotion we’re feeling “disappointment” or “frustration,” or we might say we‘re “crestfallen.” But John Koenig likely has an even better word to offer.
Koenig, a Minnesota author, recently wrote a book called “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” based on his popular blog of the same name. In it, he comes up with new words for emotions that we don’t usually have the language to express. Koenig joined host Cathy Wurzer to discuss the power of words and examine some of his creations.
Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation or read an edited transcript below.
I've always been fascinated by language. A part of it is because I grew up in Geneva, Switzerland, at an international school surrounded by dozens of different languages and nationalities.
Whenever you get a sense of a new word — like in Danish, there's a word, “hygge,” which means a kind of coziness — whenever you get a sense of a new word like that, it expands your perspective. And I just love that effect. So I decided with this book to expand the language myself.
Yeah, I love words. And so whenever I come across something, I squirrel it away. With this book in particular, I tend to rip apart parts of speech from foreign languages and recombine them. It's a very collage-like process. There's a deep respect for words, but there's also a respect for the fact that, essentially, words are an art form, and they should be played with and kept alive in that way. That's what I've tried to do here.
I don't know if your pronunciation is correct or not. There are no rules here. To me, funkenzwangsvorstellung is a noun for “the primal trance of watching a campfire in the dark.”
Exactly. “Spark obsession.”
Definitely. I think, when a feeling is inexpressible, when we have trouble describing it to people, it feels twice as deep and twice as painful. And so when you have a word to express something — even if it's a kind of isolation, or a measure of the inexpressibility of language itself — if you have a word, you can untangle the tree roots, get at the core of what you're feeling and share it with someone else.
I've gotten a lot of emails from psychologists who say there's actually quite a solid science here, where if you put a word to a feeling, that can help neutralize it and give you a sense of control.
Kenopsia is “the eeriness of places left behind” — when you're walking through a house when you're just about to move out, or a school hallway in the evening, and it's usually bustling with life but now lies abandoned and quiet. All your memories of that place are infused with activity and voices and bustling people, but suddenly the lights are off and there are echoes in the halls. It's a chilling feeling. It's as if we're haunting an old house that we used to live in.
I think it could help us connect with each other in ways that we tend to struggle with. There's a word in the book that I think has spoken to a lot of people: “sonder.” Sonder is “the awareness that every random passerby, all around you, is the main character of their own story, even though to you, they seem like extras in the background of your story.”
There's an entire universe of connections with thousands of other people that you'll never be able to see. I think that speaks to something really fundamental about our lives. We're all wrapped up in our own daily comings and goings, but we're surrounded by other people who are living lives just as vivid and complex as our own.
That's what I think language has the power to do if we pour ourselves into it and try to add meaning to the words that we use. We can share what's going on inside our heads and not just be extras to each other but main characters.
I think when the pandemic finally ends, we're going to look back on this period with a perspective that we’re utterly unable to anticipate, so I’m thinking of the word “dés vu”. It's “the awareness that this moment will become a memory.”
If the pandemic subsides next year, we'll look back on this time — just the intensity of daily life — with a sense of nostalgia, even, that seems impossible to imagine. We'll mourn everything we've lost, but we'll also celebrate certain quirks of this period that we're unable to perceive right now. That idea fascinates me.
[Laughs] Not at all. One of my favorite activities is trying to hash out a feeling with my wife, bouncing ideas off of her. And that's the definition of a good conversation. So I think people are used to it by now.
I think we all have an opportunity to add to the language. It's really not that hard. And I think we have a responsibility to define ourselves for who we really are. So if we can have more conversations in which we share how we're feeling and try to pin it down with each other, I think that's very welcome.
To listen to the audio version of the interview and read related stories, follow this link to the MPR News website. https://www.mprnews.org/episode/2021/12/30/a-minneapolis-writer-invents-new-words-to-help-us-process...