The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a compendium of invented words written by John Koenig. Each original definition aims to fill a hole in the language—to give a name to emotions we all might experience but don’t yet have a word for.

The author's mission is to capture the aches, demons, vibes, joys and urges that roam the wilderness of the psychological interior. Each sorrow is bagged, tagged and tranquilized, then released gently back into the subconscious.

▸ visit the facebook page to hear the backstory behind each word

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▸ send me a tumblr message describing emotions you need words for

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JOHN KOENIG is a designer and commercial director who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. His dictionary has been acclaimed by New York Magazine, Washington Post Express, John Green, Jason Kottke, and the guys from Radiolab.

He is currently writing a book version of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. It is gigantic and completely made up.

Copyright © 2014 John Koenig. All content is intended to be read at night.

Q: mal de coucou

I’d like to know something about ‘mal de coucou’. I think it means something like ‘pain of the cuckoo’ (?), but I don’t see the connection between these words and the definition you gave them. Could you explain this to me?”  –waveringmind 


Here’s the definition of mal de coucou:

n. a phenomenon in which you have an active social life but very few close friends—people who you can trust, who you can be yourself with, who can help flush out the weird psychological toxins that tend to accumulate over time—which is a form of acute social malnutrition in which even if you devour an entire buffet of chitchat, you’ll still feel pangs of hunger.

Imagine your brain is a bird’s nest. Normally, you feed your attention to real substantive relationships that can then grow and sustain themselves. In mal de coucou, that precious attention is instead swallowed up by acquaintances you don’t really relate to, like cuckoo birds. These might look like real friendships but will either fly out of the nest or leave you feeling socially malnourished. Even if you’re constantly hanging out with people.

This particular sorrow is my little riff on the French term mal de caribou, which is a kind of starvation that occurs even when you’re eating plentiful quantities of lean meat, notably rabbit and caribou. You need to do more than just chew the fat, so to speak. As an accidental bonus, coucou is also a French colloquialism for ‘hey there!’

If you’re curious, you can usually find my comments about etymology, overextended metaphors, and the finer points of emotion on the Dictionary’s facebook page.

–John (ask me a question)

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