The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is the fictionary we all need
Like many writers and editors, I love a good game of Scrabble. I even attend a Scrabble club and put in a few miles on the tiles each week (I’m not even ashamed of that line).
During club night last week, my opponent played ‘sonder’ in a tight spot, picking up the triple and creating four other words in the process. Unfamiliar with the word, I challenged its play. As it turns out, sonder is a legitimate Scrabble word. As the OED has it, sonder is a noun or adjective meaning ‘of or relating to a class of small racing yachts.’
Google the term though, and another meaning dominates the search results: ‘the realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.’
This new and increasingly popular definition is the brainchild of writer John Koenig. For many years now Koenig has been on a mission of sorts to plug the gaps in the English language with new words to describe emotions without a dedicated descriptive term.
For example, vellichor:
n. ‘The strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time—filled with thousands of old books you’ll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured.’
Koenig’s project, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, started life in 2009 as a website that notes its aim ‘to capture the aches, demons, vibes, joys and urges that roam the wilderness of the psychological interior.’ Later, a YouTube channel followed.
Released in print for the first time in 2020 by Simon & Schuster, Obscure Sorrows swiftly made its way to number five on the New York Times bestseller list.
Much like vellichor’s meaning, each neologism in the book, whether playful or poignant, conjures up a strange wistfulness, and Koenig’s masterful prose is the perfect vehicle to deliver this, and these new terms, to readers.
As noted by the Guardian, the fictionary (fiction-dictionary) format of Obscure Sorrows subverts the rigid immobility of traditional dictionary entries. In Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made by Jonathon Green, the scholar Alain Rey notes that dictionaries and other lauded reference tombs are privileged with implied infallibility, an ‘illusion of totality’; they represent the established and unchangeable order of lexical things.
Although Koenig’s fictionary is written in English and the terms it contains fill gaps in the English language, plenty of other languages, their quirks, morphologies, and phonetic systems, have provided inspiration. Each word in Sorrows carries an etymologically sound meaning, whether built from one language, several languages, or jargon from any language.
Vellichor, for instance, could have its roots in the 15th-century French vellum, from the Old French velin, a ‘parchment made from calfskin.’
For anyone who loves words, whether ‘real’ or real enough to be printed and released into the wild among readers, Obscure Sorrows would make an excellent Christmas gift (if anyone is thinking of me, Alexandra has my address)!
Of course, there are likely to be a few curmudgeons who view the book’s delicious frivolity as a threat to ‘good English’, but these same types of people appear every time an author gets inventive with language.
Alice in Wonderland, which was released in 1865, received frosty critical reception with contemporary voices calling it incoherent nonsense and much more besides. As one critic put it, Alice’s adventures are “too extravagantly absurd to produce more diversion than disappointment and irritation.” Today, though, the work is one of the world’s most-loved children’s books, and several of Carrol’s neologisms, such as chortle and galumph, are now accepted English words — I expect sonder is destined for the same fate.
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows defines proluctance as ‘the paradoxical urge to avoid doing something you’ve been looking forward to—opening a decisive letter, meeting up with a friend who’s finally back in town, reading a new book from your favorite author—perpetually waiting around for the right state of mind, stretching out the bliss of anticipation as long as you can.’
I’ve ordered my copy of Sorrows and when it arrives, I will no doubt engage in a little proluctance of my own.