My whole life I have marveled at the English language. More often than not I find myself amazed by just the sheer number of words we have created – with new ones being added all the time. How is a person supposed to keep up?
Tucked into my planner, I keep an old Post-it note filled with words I’ve come across and had to look up while reading. Whether or not I could actually tell you the definition of any of those words, let alone use them correctly in a sentence, is another question entirely. But the mere act of holding onto that Post-it note has become this ritual I can’t quite shake – it’s like my ceremonial offering to the gods of English – my admission that my vocabulary is woefully inept but that in the name of higher education I shall continue to write down these words in the hopes that one day, one of them will stick.
When I finally came to terms with the fact that I would never be proficient, let alone fluent, in another language (unless Pig Latin counts), I chose to swear my loyalty to English. It would be a lifelong, monogamous love affair in which English is a flighty mistress and I am some kind of bumbling oaf who relies heavily on the marriage counsel given me by my computer’s dictionary widget.
But as I have grown older (read: jaded), while English remains No. 1 in my heart (and on my tongue), I’ve started to notice cracks in the foundation. How is it that within a language so prolix – one that boasts hundreds of thousands of words – that there are still words missing for basic elements of human experience? When trying to convey a feeling for which a word doesn’t exist, it’s the communicative equivalent of being flummoxed – verklempt, even.
Earlier this fall there was a list circulating the Internet entitled “Words that Don’t Exist in the English Language.” The whole list is fascinating. For instance, in French there is a phrase L’esprit de escalier, which translates literally to “the spirit of the staircase,” but which describes the feeling one gets after leaving a conversation – when you think of all the things you should have said. This just slays me. The sentiment is so universal, the imagery so accurate. Why don’t we have something like that?
This is where John Koenig comes in. He has created a website called the “Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.” Here, about once a week, he posts his own additions to the English language. With poignancy and wry humor he seeks to fill in the gaps between the English language and human experience – in short, the obscure sorrows of the world. Some of my favorites include sidewalk hold, which is “the phenomenon where you and an acquaintance are walking toward each other from a distance, close enough to make eye contact but still too far away to talk, triggering a 15-second reciprocal performance of Walking Normally in Public.” Or there is a rollover reaction: “where your dream about someone you know skews how you feel about them the next day, an emotion you are unable – and unwilling – to shake.” Or, on a more heart-wrenching note, he crafts words like lethobenthos: “the habit of forgetting how important someone is to you until you see them again in person, making you wish your day would begin with a `previously on’ recap of your life’s various plot arcs, and end with `to be continued .'”
Koenig has invented dozens of words thus far and each manages to achieve such aching honesty in its definitions. It is a new breed of wordsmithery.
A few days ago I went out on a limb and wrote Koenig an email explaining that I was going to be writing this column and that I would be incredibly grateful if he could offer any comment on the motivation behind his website or his experience with it thus far. His outpouring of insight was more than I could have ever hoped.
It was incredibly enlightening to hear him describe the undertaking. If anything it reinforced my fervent belief that the man is part poet, part Rosetta Stone of the human experience. “The words we invented to get us this far,” Koenig writes, “were developed to communicate, let’s say, bison migration patterns, crusade fashions, or how the plagues are doing this year, not the alienation of leaving a voicemail or the instinctive vulnerability we don’t mention in elevators.” With “culture and identity becoming globalized, our language reverts to the lowest common denominator over an incredible crowd.” Koenig notes that this is a definite problem. “The world is a chaotic place, and if we’re going to condense the noise into navigable patterns . we need to describe the world as precisely as possible. So much grief is caused by aspects of individual existence that are only implied.”
“Say what you mean, even if you have to make up the words to do it,” he concluded.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. I’ve written it down on a Post-it and you can be sure I’ll carry it with me.
argaret Delaney is a junior in the College. She can be reached at mdelaneythehoya.com. I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE appears every other Tuesday.