A social media share led me to this list of “23 Perfect Words for Emotions You Never Realized Anyone Else Felt”. Gathered from John Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, the invented words are designed to “fill holes in the language,” naming feelings for which, previously, there has been no name.
“Monachopsis” describes “the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place,” while other words name things like “a hypothetical conversation that you compulsively play out in your head” (jouska), “frustration with how long it takes to get to know someone” (adronitis), or “the feeling of returning home after an immersive trip only to find it rapidly fading from your awareness” (rückkehrunruhe).
The concept intrigued me, but as I browsed the words, I also questioned them. In its title, the list suggests connection — as though it could open the way for those “aha!” moments of “You feel that way, too!” But practically, it seems divisive.
If I want to describe what it feels like to look someone in the eye, will more people understand if I say I experienced “opia”? Or are they more likely to understand if I say “There was an ambiguous intensity in the look: I felt all the invasiveness of looking at someone else’s soul, with all the vulnerability of having someone see mine”? (I would NEVER write that, ordinarily, but it is an adaptation of the definition of “opia.”)
Perhaps a stopping-the-holes approach to language is the wrong approach. Perhaps the “holes” in language are where the light gets through. If we put a word to every feeling, don’t we risk ignoring what the feelings actually are? Don’t we risk losing some understanding of ourselves?
The struggle to describe our experiences in the language we already have is a struggle, it is true. We risk misunderstanding and being misunderstood. But I find, as I wrestle with language, that there’s also this tremendous risk of understanding and being understood.
I could coin words for each new experience, giving them private definitions, so that language becomes a code for the initiate. But the best writers make extraordinary things of the ordinary materials of communication. Using common words to share what might be an uncommon observation and which yet makes his audience all sigh and nod: Ah, that is a thing I’ve always known but never known how to say.
Because our sorrows are not obscure. We’ve been feeling all the feelings for as long as there have been people on earth to feel, and the Preacher preached truth when he said there was “nothing new under the sun.”
The wistfulness of old bookshops and the frustration of photographing things lots of people have photographed don’t need special names; they don’t even need the name “sorrows.” In some ways, I think, naming such things sorrows is a way to keep from looking at the real sorrows we experience, the obvious things which we can neither properly mourn nor mend.
Do we coin words for the sorrow of an earthquake which kills thousands?
The feeling of being on one side of the globe and knowing your parents’ house on the other side of the globe is a pile of rubble, your parents are missing?
The sorrow of knowing that more than 200 women and girls were rescued from terrorist camps in Nigeria, but these still are not the Chibok girls whose kidnapping swept social media last year?
The grief of hundreds of people drowning, locked in the hold of a capsized boat in the Mediterranean, trying to get to a better life?
The horror that people alive in the world today take delight in beheadings, burnings, rape, in the name of their god?
The terror of disease?
The ache of hunger?
The feeling of being truly homeless and friendless?
These are the marks of a sin-ravaged world. They slice deep, leaving wounds we cannot stitch shut, cannot soothe with neatly-coined words. They go deeper than any word we could create has power to touch.
There is only one Word who can carry all our sorrows, only one Word who can soothe, cover, heal. We can’t trace His etymology through the roots of language: He was in the beginning with God. He was God. Through Him all things were made and without Him nothing was made.
In answer to our sorrows — obvious and obscure alike — this Word became flesh and dwelt among us. His flesh was wounded with the wounds of our sin; His sweat and blood spilled on our guilty soil; His precious breaths spent to ask forgiveness for those who hung Him on a cross.
And if the Word ended there, He would just be another entry in the dictionary of sorrows: the only truly innocent One, slaughtered like all these less-innocent.
But that isn’t the end. The Word died, yes, but the Word rose from the dead. In Him was life, and that life was the light of men. Those who trust in Him need not dwell in the darkness of obscure sorrows: this light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Receive this Word. Believe in His name. Accept from Him the right to become children of God, born not of blood nor flesh nor man, but of God.
In place of obscure sorrows: everlasting joy.
©2015 by Stacy Nott