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More Good Words

21 May 2024

Rachel read The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig and savored all sorts of new ways to describe many universal yet difficult-to-describe sensations.

Tags: communication, creativity, design thinking, language, rachel read, words

I like words: we have them on the wall, I’ve blogged about them, and I’ve been known to let a good one linger on my mind from time to time. So it’s not surprising that when I read about The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows in a recent edition of The Marginalian by Maria Popova, I ordered a copy in fairly short order. (Also: I don’t subscribe to many newsletters, but The Marginalian is on that list, and I credit it with many of the additions to my ever-growing collection of picture books.)

In his introduction to this “compendium of new words for emotions,” Koenig writes, “Words will never do us justice. But we have to try anyway.” He also clarifies that, despite its title, “This is not a book about sadness—at least, not in the modern sense of the word.” With the same Latin root, satis, that is the basis of words like satisfaction, “Not so long ago, to be sad meant you were filled to the brim with some intensity of experience. It was a state of awareness—setting the focus to infinity and taking it all in, joy and grief all at once.”

As a design thinking practitioner and a coach, I spend a not-insignificant amount of time encouraging people to be more precise when describing feelings and needs. “Good,” “bad,” “fine,” “OK,” “nice,” “mad,” and “so-so” are useful conversationally, in part due to the very ambiguity that allows for vast interpretation. When trying to solve problems or foster empathy, however, details matter.

For years, I’ve directed people to the Feelings and Needs Inventory maintained by The Center for Nonviolent Communication. (We like it so much, it’s even cited in the appendix to The Designing for Growth Field Book.) Now I have a whole new resource and while its words are new (or as some might say, mostly made up), they’re both precise and universal. Among my current favorites:

“curiosity about the impact you’ve had on the lives of the people you know, wondering which of your harmless actions or long-forgotten words might have altered the plot of their stories in ways you’ll never get to see. (From the Japanese watashi, I + ashiato, footprint. Pronounced ‘wah-tah-shee-ah-toh.’)”

“the act of trying to keep an amazing discovery to yourself, fighting the urge to shout about it from the rooftops because you’re afraid that it’ll end up being diluted and distorted, and will no longer have been created just for you. (In the Tolkien legendarium, Trahald is the true name of Sméagol (Gollum), a creature who spent centuries hiding in dark wet caves, enthralled in jealous worship of his precious enchanted ring.)”

“a state of confusion when your own internal sense of time doesn’t seem to match that of the calendar—knowing that something just happened though it apparently took place seven years ago, or that you somehow built up a decade of memories in the span of only a year and a half. (Greek echthés, yesterday + aísthesis, sensation. Pronounced ‘ek-thee-zhuh.’)”

The next time you’re feeling hem-jawed (look it up, page 215) and more descriptive language is escaping you, perhaps Koenig’s Dictionary will provide just the nudge of clarity and community you need.


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