Metro, Featured Column, Column

On Searching For A Word In Kenmore Square

The early July air hung lazily in Kenmore Square. The streets were moving with people and buses in a remarkably unremarkable way. Everything was ordinary, in place, and normal. But then memories came.

They hit me in my stomach, with a force not unlike when a wave surprises you in the shallow water, all at once knocking your feet out from under you and leaving your mouth open, gasping for air, and your cheeks glowing—half at amusement at your floundering self and half in embarrassment that you were taken by surprise by something that so obviously could happen.

The memories weren’t necessarily bad. There was my littlest brother on my dad’s shoulders, only his tiny Red Sox cap visible bobbing through the crowd. The earnest longing of a suburban middle school girl to one day be one of those graceful young adults, unwavering in her high heels. The snow-covered eyelashes of a boy I no longer love. Red coffee cups held in the soft hands of a dear friend. A date that wasn’t exactly a success, but the best date I’ve been on. This weird, dramatic, movie-reel like moment was one of those intangible pains—the ache of passing time that comes oh so frequently as a 20-something.

It’s funny how the constraints of language filter and limit moments like mine in the middle of Kenmore Square. I felt silly for feeling such theatrical longing and pain on a Tuesday morning in July when absolutely nothing was wrong.

A new YouTube channel is out to fill those gaps in the English language. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is John Koenig’s attempt to offer patches for the holes where words fail. He wants to give ownership and life to the strangely powerful emotions that occasionally arrive in the very forefront of our consciousness.

Koenig writes on his website, “I think the act of naming something implies, very simply, that you’re not alone. We give names to things so we can talk about them. Once there is a word for an experience, it feels contained somehow—and the container has a handle, which makes it much easier to pick up and pass around. Kinda comforting.”

And his website does just that. The definitions range from those that incite a knowing laugh (example: hanker sore—“finding a person so attractive it actually kind of pisses you off”) to the painfully true (example: monachopsis—“the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place, as maladapted to your surroundings as a seal on a beach—lumbering, clumsy, easily distracted, huddled in the company of other misfits, unable to recognize the ambient roar of your intended habitat, in which you’d be fluidly, brilliantly, effortlessly at home”). But some of the definitions were things I had felt but didn’t know I needed a word for, like forgetting how good it felt to be hugged by your mother after being away for many months.

Right now, Koenig has two videos on his YouTube channel, two videos that are two definitions I needed so profoundly as I sat down to write this—“vemodalen: the fear that everything has already been done, the frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist—the same sunset, the same waterfall, the same curve of a hip, the same closeup of an eye—which can turn a unique subject into something hollow and pulpy and cheap, like a mass-produced piece of furniture you happen to have assembled yourself” and “sonder: the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” Two videos that capture two of the struggles 20-somethings fight again every single day.

By the way, according to Koenig, that wave that came for me in Kenmore was “keta”—“an image that inexplicably leaps back into your mind from the distant past.”

Featured Image Courtesy of the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

November 12, 2014