RECOMMENDED READING | The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig

slipfast: adj. longing to disappear completely; to melt into a crowd and become invisible, so you can take in the world without having to take part in it – free to wander through conversations without ever leaving footprints, free to dive deep into things without worrying about making a splash.


Hello Darling,

It’s Dahlia, and I have something rather magnificent to share with you today. It’s an absolute gem of a book we’ve come across called The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.

Divided into six chapters, this ‘compendium of new words for emotions’ spends its modest length wisely alternating between shorter definitions, longer essay-like descriptions, and collage art which captures the subject matter brilliantly.

I’ll say it simply: This is, hands down, one of our favorite books of all time. We’ve broken it down by section below, but we of course couldn’t talk about everything, so I highly suggest you pick up a copy for yourself and see what words resonate with you the most.

It’s such a strange comfort to know that there are words – even newly-coined words – for feelings we’ve had for years and years and were relatively sure we were alone in feeling.

Maybe that’s the lesson here: No one is ever completely alone in feeling.

  • TITLE: The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows
  • AUTHOR: John Koenig
  • PAGE COUNT: 272
  • PUBLISHED: November 16th, 2021
  • GOODREADS: [here]
  • RATING: ★★★★★

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows defines new words for emotions that we all feel but don’t have the language to express. By turns poignant, relatable, and mind-bending, the definitions include whimsical etymologies drawn from languages around the world, interspersed with otherworldly collages and lyrical essays that explore forgotten corners of the human condition. A truly original book, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is for anyone who enjoys a shift in perspective, pondering the ineffable feelings that make up our lives, which have far more in common than we think.


Section 1: Between Living and Dreaming

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The words ‘ozurie’ and ‘maru mori’ pull at my heart the most out of this section.

Ozurie – torn between the life you want and the life you have – paints a vibrant picture of Dorothy after the credits roll at the end of The Wizard of Oz, alternating between worlds, never settled, never still. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t had exactly that feeling before, especially now that we’re attempting to truly make a run at this whole ‘artist’ thing.

Maru Mori – the heartbreaking simplicity of everyday things – strikes a different cord, but a powerful one all the same. It makes me ache, to put it simply, to think about the future. To think about (maybe) a sort of neo-noir revival – horror and mystery with a cyberpunk backdrop. And some young writer slugging down energy drinks and carding through old internet snapshots for some English class project…

What would they find, that student so far in the future, if they pointed their browser toward our little corner of the net?

Reams of text, hopefully. A built-out site with tabs with old-fashioned names like ‘radio’ and ‘tv’. And a little library, and a little gallery. Ghosts having conversations below articles. Maybe they flip through our sketchbooks with us, smile at our careless scribbling in the margins. Maybe they wonder what life was like, on the cusp of this great creative wave, this riot of life.

Frighteningly ordinary, dearest reader – even the pain of knowing all my letters will become dust feels frighteningly ordinary, as though it could be any day, any ache.

When people look back, they don’t always look to the big moments – the battles, the down-to-the-wire action. They seek out the small things – the ‘any days’, the sketches, the first drafts, the cold diner coffee. All these little, simple moments that together make up a life.

I live for scrapbooks in that way, the truly scrappy ones – the ones that are little more than receipts and postcards and Polaroids pasted into an old journal. Snapshots of a life lived so fully you wonder how it could have ever ended, even if it has, even if it did years before you ever breathed.

Against the black expanse of time, these small moments glitter like diamond dust, a shining thread tying the living and the dead.

Section 2: The Interior Wilderness

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Defining who you are from the inside out.

This entire section is full of words for things as abstract and specific as ‘the fear your get when you think you may be too old to change’, and ‘the frustration of only seeing the world through the lens of your own taste in aesthetics’.

It puts into words that moment of emotional clarity that can show up when you’ve arrived a few minutes early to a place and are simply alone with your thoughts, marveling that anything that happened happened at all. (The word is ‘alazia’, for those wondering.)

This section is especially interesting to me, as someone who thinks fairly often about the nature of self and the nature of others. What makes one ‘one’, in the end? Are we ourselves simply by virtue of existing, or are we the sum of our components – our hometown, our hard-coded genetics?

There are also words like ‘altschmerz’ (old pain), which is the ‘sense of weariness that comes with the same old problems that you’ve always had, the same boring issues and anxieties you’ve been gnawing on for decades, which makes you want to spit them out and dig up some fresher pain you might have buried in your mental backyard’.

The one that’s probably the most directly useful to me currently though, is ‘fitching’, defined thus:

compulsively turning away from works of art you find frustratingly, nauseatingly good – wanting to shut off the film and leave the theater, or devour a book only in maddening little chunks – because it resonates at precisely the right frequency to rattle you to your core, which makes it mildly uncomfortable to be yourself

If you’ve ever wondered if you’re completely alone in your unique brand of weirdness, this is the section to skip to. There are so many words, some for hyper-specific things like this, that let you know you’re not on a completely empty train.

Existing in the world is a strange and messy thing, but this section makes the journey feel just a little less lonely.

Section 3: Montage of Attractions

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This is probably the most alien section to us overall, just due to our general solitary nature. But I can see how it could make navigating the sometimes-harsh emotional waters of relationships (romantic, platonic, etc.) a little bit easier with words for ‘that sudden flicker of romantic love for a long-time friend, which had seemed impossible up to this point, but is now your problem to deal with’, and

One that stands out to me is ‘moledro’ – a feeling of resonant connection with an author or artist you’ll never meet, who may have lived centuries ago and thousands of miles away but can still get inside your head and leave behind morsels of their experience, like the little piles of stones left by hikers that mark a hidden path through unfamiliar territory.

The one that sticks with me the most, however, is probably the essay that comes along with the three words ‘moment of tangency’. In short, it’s about the small miracles of near misses that happen every day.

You and I, dear reader, have likely never met, never even interacted on social media (given the age of this site as of this posting), yet our lives could have been unfolding in parallel all these years, each without the knowledge that somewhere out there, someone was going through exactly the same thing.

Somehow we’ve always managed to miss one another. And isn’t that amazing as well?

If this section has shown me one thing for certain, it’s that it is a blue-eyed miracle that the human race manages to communicate at all, let alone form deep and lasting relationships with one another. We, no matter how intelligent or perceptive we are, no matter our natural level of empathy, can only experience life and all the emotional turmoil that comes with it through the lens of our own understanding. We can never, honestly, tell another soul ‘I know exactly how you feel’.

And yet we get on anyway. Isn’t that wonderful?

Section 4: Faces in a Crowd

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Section 4 starts with probably the most well-known word of the entire collection: Sonder, defined as ‘the awareness that everyone has a story.’

I’ve always loved this word because it’s so heartbreakingly true. Each background character in your story, each random passer-by, lives a life all their own, with their own friends and routines and in-jokes and plot-lines – a life in which you may appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background.

Other favorites include ‘monachopsis’ – the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place, ‘socha’ – the hidden vulnerability of others, and ‘momophobia’ – the fear of speaking off the cuff or from the heart; the terror of saying the wrong thing and having to watch someone’s smile fade as they realize you’re not who they thought you were.

It’s for reasons exactly like these that we’re so careful to keep a consistent tone with this site, even in such an early stage. But I would like you to remember, dearest reader, that what you see is only ever what we’ve chosen to share. A highlight reel, if you prefer, and certainly nothing to compare your ‘behind-the-scenes’ to.

‘Silience’ is another favorite – the brilliant artistry hidden all around you.

As the attached essay so cleanly points out ‘indifference is easy. It takes a lot of courage to fight back against it.’ A footnote references a 2007 experiment by a violin virtuoso named Joshua Bell. He played for nearly an hour on a priceless Stradivarius in a busy subway station. The experiment ended with $32 dollars, seven people stopping to listen, and no applause.

So, it’s here that I present to you a small challenge: Take it upon yourself to romanticize your life, your school, your hometown. Notice the art in the architecture, pay attention to the music in the background, really zero in on the flavors in your food. Just observe, say for a week, all the hidden brilliance that you, like those rushing through a subway station, have passed right by a thousand times before.

Section 5: Boats Against the Current

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This section gives us wonderful words like ‘zenosyne’ – the sense that time keeps getting faster. I love this one for the truth in it. As the essay accompanying it so sharply states, entire eons are lived in your first few months of life, and you become very used to living in the moment, because there’s nowhere else to go.

But we become more acutely aware of the passage of time the older we get, so that by the time our twenties are whirling into our thirties, we find ourselves scrambling to mark it in a more permanent way. We go back to our roots, learn about our history, where our great-grandparents came from, trying to extend our lives by learning theirs.

But, in the end, all we have is this – our precious, present moment. This is the only stretch of history we’ll ever see, ever live first-hand. And this ordinary night I’ve spent eating Oreos and drinking coffee, perched on the edge of the bed, is already fading into memory, just as it happens.

‘Life is short – and life is long. But not in that order.’

This section has the feeling of a present-tense sentence at the end of a past-tense paragraph. Words like ‘vellichor’ – the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, and ‘austice’ – a wistful omen of the first sign of autumn, join the ranks of our favorite words with a fanfare. ‘Anemoia’ – nostalgia for a time you never experienced, and ‘morii’ – the desire to capture a fleeting experience, neatly describe so much of the background noise of our life/lives so far.

Section 5 is where I most keenly feel the concept of a dictionary as ‘a poem about everything’.

But my favorite so far, perhaps my favorite overall, must be ‘kenopsia’ – the eeriness of places left behind. ‘[N]ot just empty, but hyper-empty, with a total population in the negatives, whose inhabitants are so conspicuously absent they glow like neon signs’.

If we’re up to defining gender without the guideposts of ‘male’ and ‘female’, this term comes the closest I’ve ever seen to describing what the concept of ‘gender’ is for us. We are, it seems, ‘kenochoric in nature’.

A close second, however, is ‘tichloch’ – the anxiety of never knowing how much time you have left.

Remember Hamilton – that cultural touchstone of our time? ‘Why do you write like you’re running out of time? / Write day and night like you’re running out of time? / Why do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive? / Why do you write like you need it to survive? / How do you write every second you’re alive?’

These lines instantly spring to mind whenever I find myself thinking too much about the flow of time and my place on the moving train. No matter how I alter the curtain of the sleeper car and what color I paint the walls, I am only ever a passenger on this leg of the journey. And it fills me with this strange evangelical zeal that results in a desperate attempt to catalog everything – from what classes I was taking, to what color my nail polish was that week.

And maybe it’s all just a shout into the void, an overused metaphor, a tale told a thousand different times, but the fact remains that this bit of time – this old journal, this fashion sense, this set of values – is still mine. It has never been seen before, and will not be seen again.

I’m doing my best to make my life a living poem, a breathing painting – and to be content with forever being a masterpiece-in-progress.

Section 6: Roll The Bones

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The final section of this emotional ride.

Right out of the gate, we run headlong into the exact word for our current state, stepping out on this ledge and wishing to be known: ‘elosy’ – the fear of major life changes, even ones you’ve been anticipating for years; the dread of leaving behind the bright and ordinary world you know, stepping out into that liminal space before the next stage of life begins, like the dark and rattling void between adjoining metro cars.

This has been a journey, this book. And I feel, strangely, that I’m not the same ‘me’ that I was when I first opened it. My life, in some small way, can be neatly split into ‘before’ this book and ‘after’ it.

But it’s a good sort of different.

And finally, a word I never expected to find but am glad to have now: ‘beloiter’ – to look around in a state of mild astonishment that your life is somehow still going, as if a part of you had just assumed that your allotment of days would’ve been used up by now, standing there like a player at a slot machine, perpetually surprised that your winnings continue to trickle out, but not sure what you’re supposed to do now.

The thing is, no one’s ever really sure what to do now. At best, it’s an educated guess, a calculated risk. We’re all just making constellations out of the stars in our own slice of sky. And, if nothing else, I think this book as a whole underscores the fact that some of our stars will always be the same.

That for better or for worse, You Are Here.

In The End

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a poem written in the lexical gaps of our world, glinting in the sunlight like the veins of gold mending shattered pottery in kintsugi.

I really cannot convey the myriad of directions my thoughts are running in now, the pleasant ache that’s settled in my chest – half-heartache, half-muscle pain from sitting still for so long, reading.

I’ve picked out some of the words that hit me hardest in each of these sections, but I really suggest you pick up a copy for yourself to see the full scope of things, and maybe find a new favorite word in these pages. What’s more, I could never do justice to the feeling that comes from knowing that some of the strange, specific things that I’ve felt have also been felt by others, often enough that we required a word for the experience.

There’s comfort in knowing that no matter where we go, no matter how far from home we find ourselves, we’re never alone in feeling.


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