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My Favorite Words From “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows”

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

“The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” is a collection of words created by John Koenig to express nuanced, complex emotions that do not yet have a word to describe them. Originally a website, and then a YouTube channel, this dictionary was a cornerstone of my teenage years. 

When I was younger, I spent most of my time perpetually confused by the state of my own existence. I struggled with defining myself; as far as I knew, everyone else had already figured out their place in the world, and I was just a formless, blurry amoeba barely passing as a person. “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” opened my eyes wider to the human experience and made me realize that these things I felt were not as isolated as I thought they were, and that I was not alone on this floating blue marble in space. 

Last week, the book version was published. In a fit of romantic nostalgia, I went back and reread every word on the website. 

Here are some of my favorites.


(n.) the desire to be struck by disaster—to survive a plane crash, to lose everything in a fire, to plunge over a waterfall—which would put a kink in the smooth arc of your life, and forge it into something hardened and flexible and sharp, not just a stiff prefabricated beam that barely covers the gap between one end of your life and the other.


(n.) the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.


(n.) a kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details—raindrops skittering down a window, tall trees leaning in the wind, clouds of cream swirling in your coffee—briefly soaking in the experience of being alive, an act that is done purely for its own sake.


(n.) a relationship or friendship that you can’t get out of your head, which you thought had faded long ago but is still somehow alive and unfinished, like an abandoned campsite whose smoldering embers still have the power to start a forest fire.


(n.) the realization that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore—that although you thought you were following the arc of the story, you keep finding yourself immersed in passages you don’t understand, that don’t even seem to belong in the same genre—which requires you to go back and reread the chapters you had originally skimmed to get to the good parts, only to learn that all along you were supposed to choose your own adventure.


(n.) the ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable—their pupils glittering, bottomless and opaque—as if you were peering through a hole in the door of a house, able to tell that there’s someone standing there, but unable to tell if you’re looking in or looking out.


(v. intr.) feeling the tranquil pleasure of being near a gathering but not quite in it—hovering on the perimeter of a campfire, chatting outside a party while others dance inside, resting your head in the backseat of a car listening to your friends chatting up front—feeling blissfully invisible yet still fully included, safe in the knowledge that everyone is together and everyone is okay, with all the thrill of being there without the burden of having to be.


(n.) the moment you realize that you’re currently happy—consciously trying to savor the feeling—which prompts your intellect to identify it, pick it apart and put it in context, where it will slowly dissolve until it’s little more than an aftertaste.

If any of these words spoke to you, please consider reading the rest on the official website, and maybe buying the book to support the author while you’re at it. I know I’ll be getting my hands on a copy.

Jenny Nguyen

CU Boulder '25

Jenny is a freshman at the CU College of Arts and Sciences, majoring in MCDB with a computational biology minor. Her interests include astronomy, debate, Pokemon, and a variety of TV shows and movies ranging from the average slice-of-life to a good, bone-chilling horror flick.
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