Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

A Minneapolis writer invents new words to help us process our collective malaise

a book cover and a headshot
John Koenig is the author of the New York Times bestseller “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” which seeks to find words to express universal emotions we feel but lack the language to describe. He lives in Minneapolis.
Book cover courtesy Simon & Schuster | photo of Koenig by Allie Lauritson/One:One Photography

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 love your love of words. How did you become entranced by the intricacies and quirks of language?

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.

Are you the type of person who collects words like some people collect rocks or other fine things?

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 saw a word I liked in the book that you seem to have teased out of words from a different language. I should know how to pronounce this because I speak German: ‘funkenzwangsvorstellung.’ I'm sure I screwed that up. But tell me about that.

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.”

It sounds German, in which it means, I think, ‘spark obsession.’ Is that right?

Exactly. “Spark obsession.”

In the book, you write that words ‘function as a kind of psychological programming that helps shape our relationships, our memory, even our perception of reality.’ So do you think words can help us process the trauma that we've all experienced the past few years? 

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.

I love another word you came up with: ‘kenopsia.’ I have to tell you, as a person who was initially on the front lines of the pandemic as a journalist, I'd go into work and there was no one around anywhere, and this word really underscored the feeling I had. Can you explain what that word means?

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. 

And that was actually the feeling that many of us got driving on highways or driving through downtown areas, especially at night when there was nobody around, during the height of the pandemic.

Almost post-apocalyptic.

You mentioned psychologists. In therapy, you're often asked the question ‘How does it make you feel?’ A lot of people just swallow hard and fumble for words when they have to answer — at least I have. And some people can't actually recognize and communicate their feelings. Is that part of why you think we need more words that can capture what we're feeling?

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.

As you look ahead to a new year, do you have a word that we should meditate on?

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.

Does your obsession with language drive your friends and family nuts?

[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.

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.
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