I Read John Koenig’s ‘The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.’

steve cuocci
4 min readMar 16, 2024

I love sorrow.
I love anger.
I love these extreme emotions that pit you against yourself, regardless of where the core of the emotion began. Something will devastate you, something will betray you, offend you, destroy you. And as you sit with this intense emotion, the aura of the circumstance swirls and writhes and puts you in a palace of extraordinary hurt. And no matter the support you receive, you’re in solitude with it. You’re alone with it. Trying to make sense of it.

For me in these moments, I like to journal. I like to write. Even if it’s just a small notebook, writing down something brief, I like to observe the moment and get a freeze frame of exactly what’s going on at that given moment. But there are times when a word can’t capture what I’m trying to exactly convey. There’s a middle space between the vocabulary I have which feels gaping and vast… but I know there’s a word that fits in there that could click just perfectly. I know, like some lost jigsaw puzzle piece, that there is a word that belongs in the void where my words fail me.

I thought this book would be the codex, the galaxy map of where all of these types of words exist. It is not.

This book feels like a silly game to the author. It feels like it made an instagram profile of all the ways in which 17–22 year olds struggle to get their arms around Growing Up, Finding Themselves, Finding Adulthood, Outgrowing Friends and made up words for them. In some ways, these words come across as goofy and obtuse as if drawn from the Wizarding World. In its best moments, these are words which are hodge-podged and frankensteined together from the roots of other words in multiple languages. At its worst, it is just full phrases or two english words car-crashed together to make a word with a melodramatic Tweet below it, illustrating how hard it is that your life is only X number of years and the universe is billions of years old and it will swallow you alive. About 40–60% of the way through the book, it started to feel like definitions were repeating themselves and the author was just inventing new words to use for them.

These often felt like they were words he came up with in text message conversations and he would smirk to himself in his office, his home, and say, “oh yes. THAT’S going in the book,” a huge congratulatory pat on the back for himself.

Perhaps my expectations of this book is what did it in. Maybe it was the fact that I’m a middle-aged person who has no need for the fluid quandaries of what it means to need to leave a fraction of your life behind in order to make room for a new one. I’m not positive that this is a “bad book”, more that it feels unnecessary. It feels contrived.

I did find a few words within that I did like, ones that either felt they were pertinent or ones that as I was reading early on felt like they were hitting a solid note within the thesis of the project. Words like chrysalism, merrenness, heartspur, maugry, eisce, nyctous, and vellichor. All of these are invented through etymology by the author himself, ones that felt authentic and organically constructed. But there were two that really summed up the majority of how it felt to read this book, two distinct moments in the book where I felt that this book was… less than. It made it feel like a novelty, like some greeting card.

The first one is “thwit”. This is a word for a pang of shame you feel during an embarrassing memory, especially one that gets in your head out of nowhere. The way he chose this word? It’s an acronym for The Hell Was I Thinking. Okay.

Then the real kicker. The word “aoyaoia”. This is a word for the “flavor” in a guitar solo that “compels you to snarl, squint, and arch your spine like a yowling jungle cat.” Okay.

I do not recommend this book at all. Leave it on the shelf at Urban Outfitters or Hot Topic or wherever you find little novelty pop-culture gag books and irony-laced books to sit on your shelf. My biggest lament is that there is not even one word I can pull from it to use in every day life, in every day writing. And what’s even worse is that during the longer form definitions and his brief essays towards the end, he actually seems like a good, qualified writer. I hope he can use his talent for something great!