Made Up Words for Obscure Emotions

My most favorite Christmastime moment, the thing I love to do most, is to sit in a coffee shop for a few hours a couple days before Christmas. It's cold outside, but I'm cozy. Most of my client work is done, so I'm just noodling around on the computer, finishing some last minute projects and tweeting jokes about Christmas songs.

No one is there, like they closed up early, but let me stay behind. Someone pops in and orders a drink once in a while, but they leave again in a mad rush to finish their holiday shopping. Everyone's racing around trying to finish their last minute errands, which is why the place is empty in the first place.

The shop is normally full to overflowing with people meeting, working, drinking coffee, and chattering. But not today, not two days before Christmas. Now the place is all mine. That moment, that feeling of relaxed contentment tinged with a splash of Schadenfreude, is my favorite Christmas moment. And my entire holiday is incomplete if I can't spend those few hours enjoying it.

According to the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, that feeling is called Kenopsia. It's defined as "the eerie, forlorn atmosphere for a place that is usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet — a school hallway in the evening, an unlit office on a weekend, vacant fairgrounds — an emotional afterimage that makes it seem not just empty but hyper-empty, with a total population in the negative, who are so conspicuously absent they glow like neon signs."

But I wouldn't call it a sorrow. That time of emptiness is my favorite time in any place or event — everyone is gone and you feel like you're not supposed to be there.

Like when you went back to school at night for a school concert or parent-teacher conference. Then it wasn't a school, it was a whole different place with a different purpose. It didn't feel like the same place you had just spent eight hours, even though you were going to be back after your parents yelled at you for the long list of things you did since the last parent-teacher conference.

And it was such a long list too. Did that happen to anyone else? No? Just me?

That happened to me a lot. I was always in trouble when I was a kid, and I could never seem to avoid it. Have you ever had the feeling where you're just doing everything wrong?

That's called P├óro (like "CAR-o"), and the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrow says it's the "feeling that no matter what you do is always somehow wrong — as if there’s some obvious way forward that everybody else can see but you, each of them leaning back in their chair and calling out helpfully, 'colder, colder, colder…'"

Or as I like to call it, "being a teenager."

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrow was started by a guy named John Koenig who creates words to describe unusual feelings that many of us have, but don't quite know how to explain. People email him and describe a particular feeling for a particular instance, and he comes up with a word that helps us put a linguistic finger on it.

Feelings like Nighthawk, which is the recurring thought that only strikes late at night, like an overdue task or nagging guilt. It's that realization that sits you bolt upright in bed wondering, "Did I pay the cable bill?" And you can't go back to sleep because the thought won't leave your head, but you don't want to get up and check because that will wake you up completely.

It's sort of like that feeling of "Did I unplug the iron?" when you're two hours into a six-hour car trip and there's no one at home to check it for you.

Or it's that cringe-worthy moment of your life, where you did something so embarrassing that remembering actually makes you writhe in existential agony, but you only remember it when you're about to fall asleep.

So instead you construct an argument in your head that you'll never actually have with the person who caused you the pain, but it's the one you wish you had. We've all had that moment, where we were tongue-tied in a conversation and never got to say exactly what we thought, or thought of it a couple hours after the argument ended. So you replay that moment over and over in your mind, thinking of what you could have said.

That's called a Jouska, and it's a hypothetical conversation that "you compulsively play out in your head — a crisp analysis, a cathartic dialogue, a devastating comeback." That's when you come up with that particularly withering insult that will cause the other person to question their life choices, and fall to their knees, wracked with repentant sobs. But your life goes unfulfilled, because you'll never be able to deliver it. That moment is lost forever.

Instead, you'll live in The Meantime. That's "the realization that your quintessential future self isn’t ever going to show up, which forces the role to fall upon the understudy, the gawky kid for whom nothing is easy, who spent years mouthing their lines in the wings before being shoved into the glare of your life, which is already well into its second act."

In other words, look in the mirror. That's who showed up.

If that doesn't depress you, then can you refer me to your pharmacist? Because that's the saddest damn thing I've ever heard.

Now maybe the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows can come up with a word for that. But if he names it after me, he's going to need another word for that emotion.


Photo credit: "An Expression of Disgust" - The expression of the emotions in man and animals / Charles Darwin Published: 1872 (Wikimedia Commons via Wellcome Library, London, Creative Commons 4.0)



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