I like saying the word “ineffable.” The sound of it carries its meaning, close to onomatopoeia, and saying it ironically signals that I don’t have words for something, though you might see it in my face or hear it in my voice.
Psychology researcher Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work has helped me consider how I associate words and the learned concepts they represent with my experiences, especially using what might be considered emotional labels. The bigger, cruder the word (i.e, anger), the more I may be captured by the experience. It has me, and may obscure what I can perceive and feel otherwise. The more granularly I can home in on it, the more I am putting it into proportion. It right-sizes while isolating the “what’s really affecting me” element from all else that is in the stew. Especially in what seems more negative, things become less noisy on the inside, and more options appear for what to do on the outside.
In the last few years I’ve also become focused in general on how people automatically put things in categories, often with available, human-crafted word-handles. Rather than simply sorting something as “this” and “not that,” I now pay more attention to shades in between or beyond, the similarities and the differences, even if this slows me down a bit and requires me to tune in more fully. It leaves me with more things that may not have a name.
All of this implies, weirdly, that having more and better words can help as the mediational means to make sense of what’s going on. John Koenig is here to help. His recent book, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, is a wild ride through a range of human experiences, some of which will be more familiar to each of us, and some less. The genius is in noticing that which doesn’t seem to have a name. With apparent pleasure he supplies one and offers its provenance, with low expectations that any will fall into wide use.
Examples from Koenig: “slip fast,” or the longing to disappear or melt into a crowd. “Ozurie,” or being torn between the life you want and the life you have. “Onism,” or the awareness of how little of the world you experience. Or, “the meantime,” the realization that your ideal future self isn’t going to show up and you need to fall back on who you are, the “understudy” who has been shoved on stage.
What Koenig, a graphic designer and video maker, seems to have done is pay incredible attention to the previously ineffable in life. What’s familiar and resonant in his dictionary activates my imagination. I recognize it from somewhere, some time and perhaps as something important. I kept going, ineffably—and, as a result, with a poor capacity to remember it.
Past experiences I can think of without names: becoming more alone in the world without parents and how they created a sense of home; the unwinked wink among people who don’t say out loud that they really aren’t following their leaders; noticing that an act I wanted someone else to find as generous was also self-serving; not being able to let go of the privilege that keeps you safe; being surprised by a glimpse of the humanity of a human right in front of you; the struggle to declare the victory of enjoying something that you didn’t think you should enjoy.
I have been going through Koenig’s book in small doses. After all, it is a dictionary, one organized not by alphabeticals but by evocative phrases capturing how we experience the world. I circle in the book what’s familiar to me and underline passages that artfully capture essences of experiences. I also am watching the net effect on me. I am gaining even more appreciation of the fullness and complexity of our experiences and how many, dynamic emotional themes may be telling the story of me in moments of time and over time.
I think Koenig’s emotions indicate qualities that serve as proto-narratives about the state of our relationship with our world, rather than simply as triggered features that reside somewhere in the body. Koenig gets me tuning in to me-in-the-world, especially to novelty, both inwardly and outwardly at the same time.
I am not committed to making up words, but Koenig inspires me to put some kind of stamp marking the ineffibleness of things as they happen. I suppose that leaves me in the process of effing (feel free to sound it out), declaring the experience meaningful rather than something that’s throwing me off, putting me on my heels or leaving me in a big, crude state of mind. Not surprisingly, effing already is a word, though one that I am redefining for my convenience. Effing means not just noticing and grabbing on but interpreting and shaping, and, perhaps, being shaped. Not reducing my life and me to some old category. This feels liberating.
One surprising joy for me in Koenig’s writing came when he called language a tool of inception. Personal inception, I think, has us blurting out “ah-ha,” or some such sound. Or we make a face revealing our astonishment. Perhaps expressing a tiny movement of our inner tectonic plates, a shift, as something gives way, making something new possible. Even if we don’t know what it is—yet.
For more about Fred’s work, including how he supports people taking sabbaticals, see www.meanwhile.studio.