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Pop Culture

How a man with a love of words created a dictionary for our most complex emotions

Got a particularly hard-to-describe feeling? Don't worry—there's a word for that.

Obscure Sorrows, defining, newly minted words, emotions
Image pulled from YouTube video linked to website.

Unique words defining emotions beyond the scope of a typical dictionary.

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?


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.

Dictionary of (@ObscureSorrows) / Twitter

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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.

"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.


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.

This article originally appeared on 07.02.15

Education

12 books that people say are life-changing reads

Some books have the power to change how we see ourselves, the world, and each other.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Books are powerful.

As a participant in the Amazon Associates affiliate program, Upworthy may earn proceeds from items purchased that are linked to this article, at no additional cost to you.

Out of all human inventions, books might just be the greatest. That may be a bold statement in the face of computers, the internet and the international space station, but none of those things would be possible without books. The written recording of human knowledge has allowed our advancements in learning to be passed on through generations, not to mention the capturing of human creativity in the form of longform storytelling.

Books have the power to change our lives on a fundamental level, shift our thinking, influence our beliefs, put us in touch with our feelings and help us understand ourselves and one another better.

That's why we asked Upworthy's audience to share a book that changed their life. Thousands of responses later, we have a list of inspiring reads that rose to the top.

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Wondering where she got that rested glow? She hurkle-durkled.

Hurkle-durkle might be the silliest word ever, but it could be the missing step in your self-care.

Hurkle-durkling simply means to linger in bed long past the time when you “should” already be up. It’s a Scottish term dating back to the 1800s—-originally having more to do with sitting in a crouching position either for warmth or secrecy, but eventually taking on a more relaxed and positive connotation.

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Volunteers are essential to animal shelters running effectively to fill in the gaps employees may not have time for. Rocky Kanaka has been volunteering to sit with dogs to provide comfort. Recently he uploaded a video of an extremely emaciated Vizsla mix that was doing his best to make himself as small as possible in the corner of the kennel.

Kanaka immediately wanted to help him adjust so he would feel comfortable enough to eat and eventually get adopted. The dog appeared scared of his new location and had actually rubbed his nose raw from anxiety, but everything changed when Kanaka came along.

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Even though it’s 2023 and schools are much more concerned with protecting children from bullying than in the past, parents still have to be aware that kids will be kids, and having a child with a funny name is bound to cause them trouble.

A mother on Reddit is concerned that her future children will have the unfortunate last name of “Butt,” so she asked people on the namenerds forum to help her convince her husband to name their child something different.

(Note: We’re assuming that the person who wrote the post is a woman because their husband is interested in perpetuating the family name, and if it were a same-sex relationship, a husband probably wouldn’t automatically make that assumption.)

"My husband’s last name is Butt. Can someone please help me illuminate to him why this last name is less than ideal,” she asked the forum. “I totally get we can’t shield kids from everything and I understand the whole family ties thing, but c'mon. Am I being unreasonable by suggesting our future kid either take my name, a hybrid, or a new one altogether?"

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Woman shares the powerful impact of a 'hardcore' gym bro's words of encouragement

Previous experience had her feeling nervous when the man approached her at the gym, but what he said brought her to tears.

Steph shares how a few simple words made all the difference.

Going to the gym can be a daunting prospect for a lot of people. It shouldn't be—the whole point of going to the gym is to exercise, which is something that should universally be applauded—but sometimes it can feel like there's pressure to be at a certain fitness level or have a certain physique before stepping foot in the door.

For people who are heavier, gym culture can be especially intimidating. Unfortunately, not everyone remembers to practice kindness and fatphobia appears to remain a fairly tolerated prejudice. That shouldn't stop people with big bodies from enjoying all that fitness centers have to offer, but all too often, it does.

It hasn't stopped a woman named Steph from working out regularly at her gym, albeit with some trepidation. As she shared in a hugely viral TikTok, she's experienced some unkind behavior at the gym that made her nervous when a man approached her recently. But her description of the encounter ultimately demonstrated how powerful a few positive words can be.

In a video made from her car just after leaving the gym, Steph explained that a "hardcore" gym-goer who is "super tough" and covered in tattoos had came up to talk to her. Her initial response was to be afraid of what he was going to say to her, based on previous experience. She shared in the video how hard it's been to stay steady with her workouts, especially with medications she's on making her body hold onto weight, but she's been working hard to be consistent. She steeled herself for whatever he might say.

She didn't expect it to be this: "I've seen you in here every week, almost every day. I've seen you in here every week—and I'm proud of you." Nor did she expect that such simple words of encouragement could make such a huge impact.

Watch her tell the story:

@steph5468

#gymprogress #workputjourney #keepgoing #healingjourney

People had a lot to say about the interchange and Steph's emotional response to it.

"People do not realize, how one person can change everything," wrote one commenter.

"Girl you are CRUSHING IT," wrote another. "That man you encountered is what real men do. Encourage. Support. Be human! It isn’t hard! ❤️"

"No one knows your story, your struggles. You're doing the dang thing and that takes courage and strength. You. Keep. Going. I'm proud of you too!" shared another.

More and more words of encouragement flooded Steph's comment section, and people on Upworthy's Instagram page weighed in as well.

"I'm a fitness coach and this made me cry 😢 just having someone say they are proud of you can move mountains for so many of us who didn’t/ don’t get the praise growing up," wrote one person.

"Who knows? He may be going through something too and saw a determined, consistent, fellow traveler," wrote another. "You share your Truth so powerfully. You may not know how many people will see this and be encouraged by your honesty. I’m in awe that you show up for YOURSELF every day. And as for the rude and ill-mannered? Well they struggle too—just to be decent kind human beings. Some people have not been shown Empathy and therefore do not know how to use that muscle. You are beautiful, smart, articulate, wise and a woman who knows where she’s headed. Keep walking, head up knowing there are many many more who do empathize, who see you and are on your side❤️"

"It’s amazing to think about how this man’s single act of kindness, spread through you to affect us all in a positive way," shared another. "This made all of our days, and I’m crying tears of joy while I write this. Please thank him from all of us the next time you see him, if you’re comfortable with that. And thank you for sharing! ❤️"

Indeed, thanks to both Steph and the hardcore, tattooed gym bro for being wonderful examples for us all. We never know what a small act of kindness or a few words of encouragement will do to make someone's life significantly better, but it's always worth trying.


This article originally appeared on 9.5.23

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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