John Koenig: What If There Were A Word For Every Emotion In The World? When we can't describe how we're feeling, we say we "have no words." But in his made-up dictionary, writer John Koenig has invented words to describe our most abstract and ephemeral emotions.

John Koenig: What If There Were A Word For Every Emotion In The World?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So have you ever had that experience walking down the street, listening to music, lost in the world of your own soundtrack and then you notice that someone else is doing the exact same thing, listening to their own soundtrack, starring in their own movie, living a parallel life, a life you will never get to see? And should you make an appearance, if ever, it would be as a blur of faces passing by on the sidewalk or the silhouette in a lit window at night. And did you know there's a word for that feeling? Sonder.

JOHN KOENIG: Sonder is the awareness that everyone has a story, that all the random passersby you see around you, they all have an emotional experience just as rich as yours. Their lives are just as complex, and they have connections that sort of spiral outward, even though to you they're just, you know, an extra in the background.


RAZ: This is John Koenig. He's the creator of The Dictionary Of Obscure Sorrows, which essentially makes up words for emotions where words didn't previously exist, like sonder and lachesism.

KOENIG: Lachesism, yeah. That is the hunger for disaster. You know, you don't want disaster to befall you. You don't want the hurricane to sweep through and rip up your neighborhood, but some small part of you does.

RAZ: So - OK, so how many words are actually in your dictionary?

KOENIG: Oh, I'd say about - maybe around 700, something like that.

RAZ: Wow, that's a lot of words.

KOENIG: Maybe a little bit less.

RAZ: Do you - so do you know all of them by memory now, by heart?

KOENIG: I will. Some of them I just wrote, so I think the more I sit with them the more real they become to me. And I think that's really the advantage of naming emotions is that part of the sting behind a lot of our sadnesses is that they're mysterious.


KOENIG: And we don't know how - you know, what the boundaries of them are. And so what I've found is when you put a name to a feeling and try to pick it apart with, you know, as much precision as you can stand, it can actually defuse the bomb a little bit, you know, whether it's - if you're afraid of death, there's a lot of different little components to that, right? It's, you know, your story coming to an end. And so that makes you reflect on what your story was. It's kind of a fear of the void, you know.


KOENIG: A fear of having to leave the world behind into the unknown.


RAZ: So most of us experience these kinds of emotions, whether we can define them or not. But those feelings, they're complicated. So on the show today, we're going to try to decode them and hear ideas about whether we have control over our emotions, what they actually are and why we feel them and how things like language, culture and context can shape our emotional lives. And for John Koenig, the language he invented to describe those emotions is a reminder that maybe someone else out there feels those things, too.

KOENIG: I became fascinated with just this idea of, like, this huge book that defined all of the unknowables of the human experience, that I guess it would be a confirmation that you are not alone in how you feel.


RAZ: Here's more from John Koenig on the TED stage.


KOENIG: In Mandarin, they have a word yu yi - I'm not pronouncing it correctly - which means the longing to feel intensely again the way you did when you were a kid. In Polish, they have a word, jouska, which is the kind of hypothetical conversation that you compulsively play out in your head. And finally, in German - of course, in German - they have a word called zielschmerz, which is the dread of getting what you want.


KOENIG: Now, I'm not sure if I would use any of these words as I go about my day, but I'm really glad they exist. But the only reason they exist is because I made them up.


RAZ: What is monachopsis?

KOENIG: Yeah, monachopsis - so that is the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place, unable to recognize the ambient roar of your intended habitat in which you'd be fluidly, brilliantly, effortlessly at home.

RAZ: Yeah. I experience that virtually every single hour of my life.

KOENIG: Really?

RAZ: Yeah.

KOENIG: (Laughter) Just a feeling of being out of place.

RAZ: Like multiple times a day.


RAZ: Ellipsism.

KOENIG: Ellipsism - the sadness that you'll never be able to know how history will turn out. You keep passing on the joke of being alive without ever really learning the punchline. So to the extent that you pass the baton of this story onto someone else, you never get to know how it ends.

RAZ: That's crazy, isn't it?

KOENIG: But there's - I don't know. There's a sweetness in there, too. I don't know. If we stay aware of our limitations, it kind of makes the rest of life just seem a little more like a miracle.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting because you can, I mean, write these emotions. These feelings are our - they're less obscure than we think. I mean, they're actually much more universal than obscure sorrows - maybe universal sorrows, the dictionary of universal sorrows.

KOENIG: That's true. There's certainly a universality in the responses to them. And I think one of the most poignant parts of this project is that I get emails from people describing their own feelings that they would love a word for. And often, you know, I'll get two emails in my inbox on the same day from people on opposite sides of the Earth describing the same way in which they feel alone, and they have no way of knowing that someone else is out there feeling the exact same thing on the exact same day.


KOENIG: I'm lucky enough to be in a position that they share that with me. And then I can see that a lot of us are feeling a lot of these - a lot of these same things.

RAZ: John Koenig. He's the creator of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, which will soon become a book. You can see his full talk at

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