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Can't find the right word for a hard-to-describe emotion? Meet a man who makes them.

Have you ever thought, "Is that word just made up?" Well, you were right.

Can't find the right word for a hard-to-describe emotion? Meet a man who makes them.

What if you needed a word for something that you can't quite define? Where would you turn?

Have you ever tried to explain something but gave up because the person you're talking to wouldn't be able to relate? Or worse yet, there's not an actual word for what you're trying to explain?


Image from Thinkstock.

Well, there's a word for that feeling: exulansis.

Haven't heard that term before? How about this one:

Anecdoche — a conversation in which everyone is talking, but nobody is listening.

No? How about this:

Opia — the ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye.

Now, before you start doubting your own vocabulary skills, you won't find those words in any of the major dictionaries. Instead, they come from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a collection of newly minted words for life's hard-to-define feelings.

So, these words aren't real? Well, it's not quite that simple.

What makes something a "real" word?

It's a word that's found in the dictionary, you might say. That leads to an entirely separate question: Whose dictionary? Merriam-Webster? Oxford? Cambridge? Urban?

The truth is that language is ever-changing, and what one might say is a "fake" word today could very well be a "real" word tomorrow (or within a few years, at least).

In June 2015, the Oxford English Dictionary added a handful of new words to its rolls, including "Interweb," "jeggings," "hot mess," "crowdfunding," and "cisgender." Will all of these words stick with us for the long haul? Almost certainly not. Still, in the mind of OED's editors, those words are just as real as any others.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, on the other hand, contains many useful terms that you won't find in a traditional dictionary ... yet.

You'll find words like "Vellichor" ("The strange wistfulness of used bookshops") and "Adronitis" ("Frustration with how long it takes to get to know someone") buried within the dictionary's six-year history.

While some terms come off as, well, obscure, others seem to fill meaningful voids left by the limitations of language for common emotions.

Its existence feels almost otherworldly, like spells from the mind of J.K. Rowling.


GIF from "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

"I've been writing a dictionary of emotions for about five years, and still the most common question I get is, 'Are these words real?'" Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows creator John Koenig told Upworthy over email.

To answer that question, Koenig says (emphasis mine):

"One answer is an obvious 'no,' [they're not real] because you couldn't find them in a leather-bound dictionary — and because I create them myself by twisting together word roots from any one of a dozen different languages, from French, Japanese and Mayan to my personal favorite, Greek.

On the other hand, of course these words are real, because in reality there is no such thing. A word is not like a gold coin that you bite to tell whether it's counterfeit, so you might be able to trade it for a mule. It becomes real when it's spoken and understood. And by that standard, I've seen some of my words (particularly 'sonder') used earnestly in many different conversations online. Are they all wrong? Is 'sonder' any less meaningful because it hasn't yet been enshrined on the page of a leather-bound book? After all, almost every word in the Oxford English Dictionary has a birthdate, a notation of its first recorded use, back when it was just a yawp of nonsense that only made sense to one person, then two. All words were born this way."

Here's "sonder" by the way:

When it comes to how we think about words, popularity is often a stand-in for legitimacy.

You might not find the verb "retweeted" in the dictionary on your bookshelf, but it's an understood term. Koenig has thoughts on that, as well:

"So then, does realness require the blessing of popular use? How many millions of people does it take to change the word 'literally' to mean 'figuratively'? Is a word still alive if only one person knows its meaning? Or is that too far?"


"Personally, I think words should exist for their own sake, regardless of how they are used," Koenig says, pointing out that our language is particularly lacking when it comes to describing emotions.

"When I post a new definition or a new episode of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, I often have no idea if anyone else out there feels the emotion I'm trying to pin down. Because it's a one-man show, it's totally possible that it's just me. So then this question about realness [of a word] becomes just another way of asking, 'Am I the only person who feels this way?'"

Koenig isn't alone in his curiosity about the authenticity of words. English professor Anne Curzan gave a TED Talk on this exact topic.

During her talk, Curzan recounts someone asking her if "defriend" is a "real word." She wound up in the same sort of existential rabbit hole:

"What makes a word real? My dinner companion and I both know what the verb 'defriend' means, so when does a new word like 'defriend' become real? Who has the authority to make those kinds of official decisions about words, anyway?"

Here's Curzan giving her TED Talk "What makes a word 'real'?" in March 2014. Image by TED.

She touched on the process of words making their way into the dictionary. This might seem like a stale topic, but it's pretty fascinating.

To her, dictionary editors are similar to anthropologists — that's a way most of us probably hadn't thought about them before (if we thought about them at all).

"So how does a word get into a dictionary? It gets in because we use it and we keep using it, and dictionary editors are paying attention to us. If you're thinking, 'But that lets all of us decide what words mean,' I would say, 'Yes it does, and it always has.'

Dictionaries are a wonderful guide and resource, but there is no objective dictionary authority out there that is the final arbiter about what words mean. If a community of speakers is using a word and knows what it means, it's real. That word might be slangy, that word might be informal, that word might be a word that you think is illogical or unnecessary, but that word that we're using, that word is real."


So, what makes a "real" word? That's entirely up to you.

Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

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Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."