The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: Uncommonly Lovely Invented Words for What We Feel but Cannot Name

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: Uncommonly Lovely Invented Words for What We Feel but Cannot Name

“Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her exquisite manifesto for the magic of real human conversation. Each word is a portable cathedral in which we clarify and sanctify our experience, a reliquary and a laboratory, holding the history of our search for meaning and the pliancy of the possible future, of there being richer and deeper dimensions of experience than those we name in our surface impressions. In the roots of words we find a portal to the mycelial web of invisible connections undergirding our emotional lives — the way “sadness” shares a Latin root with “sated” and originally meant a fulness of experience, the way “holy” shares a Latin root with “whole” and has its Indo-European origins in the notion of the interleaving of all things.

Because we know their power, we ask of words to hold what we cannot hold — the complexity of experience, the polyphony of voices inside us narrating that experience, the longing for clarity amid the confusion. There is, therefore, singular disorientation to those moments when they fail us — when these prefabricated containers of language turn out too small to contain emotions at once overwhelmingly expansive and acutely specific.

Art by Marc Martin from We Are Starlings

John Koenig offers a remedy for this lack in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (public library) — a soulful invitation to “get to work redefining the world around us, until our language more closely matches the reality we experience.”

The title, though beautiful, is misleading — the emotional states Koenig defines are not obscure but, despite their specificity, profoundly relatable and universal; they are not sorrows but emissaries of the bittersweet, with all its capacity for affirming the joy of being alive: maru mori (“the heartbreaking simplicity of ordinary things”), apolytus (“the moment you realize you are changing as a person, finally outgrowing your old problems like a reptile shedding its skin”), the wends (“the frustration that you’re not enjoying an experience as much as you should… as if your heart had been inadvertently demagnetized by a surge of expectations”), anoscetia (“the anxiety of not knowing ‘the real you'”), dès vu (“the awareness that this moment will become a memory”).

Koenig composites his imaginative etymologies from a multitude of sources: names and places from folklore and pop culture, terms from chemistry and astronomy, the existing lexicon of languages living and dead, from Latin and Ancient Greek to Japanese and Māori. He writes:

In language, all things are possible. Which means that no emotion is untranslatable. No sorrow is too obscure to define. We just have to do it.


Despite what dictionaries would have us believe, this world is still mostly undefined.

Art by Julie Paschkis from Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People

There are various words addressing the maddening uncertainty of the two fundamental dimensions of human life: time and love.

n. the bittersweetness of having arrived here in the future, finally learning the answers to how things turned out but being unable to tell your past self.

French énouer, to pluck defective bits from a stretch of cloth + dénouement, the final part of a story, in which all the threads of the plot are drawn together and everything is explained. Pronounced “ey-noo-mahn.”

adj. longing for a sense of certainty in a relationship; wishing there were some way to know ahead of time whether this is the person you’re going to wake up next to for twenty thousand mornings in a row, instead of having to count them out one by one, quietly hoping your streak continues.

Mandarin 确认 (quèrèn), confirmation. Twenty thousand days is roughly fifty-five years. Pronounced “kweh-ruh-nuhs.”

There are words that reckon with the challenges of self-knowledge.

n. the state of not knowing how you really feel about something, which forces you to sift through clues hidden in your own behavior, as if you were some other person — noticing a twist of acid in your voice, an obscene amount of effort you put into something trifling, or an inexplicable weight on your shoulders that makes it difficult to get out of bed.

Ancient Greek ἄγνωστος (ágnōstos), not knowing + διάθεσις (diáthesis), condition, mood. Pronounced “ag-nos-thee-zhuh.”

n. the dread of finally pursuing a lifelong dream, which requires you to put your true abilities out there to be tested on the open savannah, no longer protected inside the terrarium of hopes and delusions that you started up in kindergarten and kept sealed as long as you could.

German Ziel, goal + Schmerz, pain. Pronounced “zeel-shmerts.”

Art by Paloma Valdivia for Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions

There are words that anchor us in both the smallness and the grandeur of existence, its fierce fragility, its devastating beauty; words tasked with holding the hardest truth — that we are children of chance, born of a billion bright improbabilities that prevailed over the infinitely greater odds of nonexistence, living with only marginal and mostly illusory control over the circumstances of our lives and other people’s choices, forever vulnerable to the accidents of a universe insentient to our hopes.

n. the state of being simultaneously entranced and unsettled by the vastness of the cosmos, which makes your deepest concerns feel laughably quaint, yet vanishingly rare.

From galaxy, a gravitationally bound system of millions of stars + agog, awestruck. Pronounced “gal-uh-gawg.”

n. the unease of knowing how quickly your circumstances could change on you—that no matter how carefully you shape your life into what you want it to be, the whole thing could be overturned in an instant, with little more than a single word, a single step, a phone call out of the blue, and by the end of next week you might already be looking back on this morning as if it were a million years ago, a poignant last hurrah of normal life.

Latin crāstinō diē, tomorrow + praxis, the process of turning theory into reality. Pronounced “krak-sis.”

n. a feeling of quiet amazement that you exist at all; a sense of gratitude that you were even born in the first place, that you somehow emerged alive and breathing despite all odds, having won an unbroken streak of reproductive lotteries that stretches all the way back to the beginning of life itself.

Spanish suerte, luck + fuerza, force. Pronounced “soo-wair-zuh.”

n. the frustration of being unable to fly, unable to stretch out your arms and vault into the air, having finally shrugged off the burden of your own weight, which you’ve been carrying your entire life without a second thought.

Lakota mahpiohanzi, “a shadow caused by a cloud.” Pronounced “mah-pee-oh-han-zee-uh.”

Art by Monika Vaicenavičienė from What Is a River?

Emerging from the various entries is a reminder, both haunting and comforting, that despite how singular our experience feels, we are all grappling with just about the same core concerns; that our time is short and precious; that all of our confusions are a single question, the best answer to which is love.

Couple The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows with Consolations — poet and philosopher David Whyte’s lovely meditations on the deeper meanings of everyday words — then revisit artist Ella Frances Sanders’s illustrated dictionary of untranslatable words from around the world and poet Mary Ruefle’s chromatic taxonomy of sadnesses.


Home: An Illustrated Celebration of the Genius and Wonder of Animal Dwellings

Home: An Illustrated Celebration of the Genius and Wonder of Animal Dwellings

“There’s no place like home,” Dorothy sighs in The Wizard of Oz. But home is not a place — it is a locus of longing, always haunted by our existential homelessness. “Welcome home!” a cheaply suited broker once exclaimed at me, swinging open the door to a tiny studio as my foot fell on the beige wall-to-wall carpet and my eyes on the two dead roaches embracing in the corner. Between the time I left my family home in Bulgaria in my late teens and the time I settled in Brooklyn in my late twenties, I moved in and out of housing across continents and oceans, cycling through dozens of dwellings. No matter how many books I shelved and how many plants I potted, none ever felt like a home. That took another decade — not because of anything in the house, but because I had finally begun feeling at home in myself.

Other animals don’t anguish with such existential troubles. “They are so placid and self-contain’d,” Whitman wrote. “They do not sweat and whine about their condition. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins… Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things.” From the moment they are born until the moment they die, other animals are entirely at home in their being, for they don’t suffer the tyranny of a self, with all its restless need for expression and actualization. The homes they build — strange and various, baffling and beautiful in their singularity — reflect that purity of being. No ego and no self-image govern the design — only the exquisite genius of evolution, refining the blueprint over eons to make each home a perfect temple for consecrating each creature’s biological destiny.

The wonder, perfection, and diversity of animal dwellings come alive in artist Isabelle Simler’s book Home (public library) — a vibrant catalogue of nature’s creativity: the miraculous courtship cathedral of the satin bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus), the “lace citadel” of the cross orbweaver spider (Araneus diadematus), the “silky apartment” of the comet moth (Argema mittrei), the “mossy miniature home” of the hummingbird (Trochilidae), the “cactus cabin” of the world’s smallest owl, the elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi), smaller than a sparrow.

There is emergence incarnate in the termite cathedral, built by millions of blind insects with no leader and no blueprint. There is an affirmation of poet and potter M.C. Potter’s credo that “the creative spirit creates with whatever materials are present” in the case-making caddisfly, housing its larvae in snug cases made of whatever is on hand: bits of wood, grains of sand, shells and pebbles and marine debris stitched together with silk. There is the sheer astonishment of the baya weaver’s nest, meticulously woven from fresh grasses that change color under the sun’s rays.

Nearly a century after Rachel Carson pioneered the then-radical approach of writing about the natural world from the living perspective of each creature, Simler channels each animals’s approach to its home in a short singsong first-person poem.

of the Eurasian harvest mouse

Micromys minutus

My tail knows each blade of grass
and tethers me safely
as I swing through the air,
a micro-acrobat
dressed in soft skin.
My tangled nest,
woven from grasses,
is shaped like a little ball.
Stem to stalk, stalk to stem,
a bounce or two,
and in between
I rest in my house.

of the common wasp

Vespula vulgaris

I nibble the dry bark,
and with my saliva I mush the wood fibers together.
That’s how I make the paper pulp
that I’ll use to build my palace.
The shades of color vary
depending on the tree
I’ve been chewing.
Inside, everything is well organized.
The hexagonal cells are
neatly spread out,
arranged in circular tiers
held by cardboard pillars.
The lightweight nest
is shrouded
in layers of paper,
and so it remains
at the ideal

of the common tailorbird

Orthotomus sutorius

With three mango leaves
and the tip of my sharp beak,
I fashion my tailor-made house
at the edge of the forest.
Carrying a blade of grass or thread from a web,
I jab, I sew, I flit here and there.
Stitching straight lines or zigzags,
I hem, I make knots, I chirp and cheep.
Finally, I pad out my home with woolly red fibers,
animal hair, and another chirrup or two.

What emerges is a dazzling testament to naturalist Sy Montgomery’s poetic observation that “our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.”

Complement Home with The Blue Hour — Simler’s breathtaking celebration of nature’s rarest color — then revisit the sapiens counterpart to these creaturely dwellings in Carson Ellis’s tender illustrated catalogue of the many kinds of human homes.


The Parts We Live With: D.H. Lawrence and the Yearning for Living Unison

The Parts We Live With: D.H. Lawrence and the Yearning for Living Unison

The great paradox of personhood is that the sum is simpler than its parts. We move through the world as a totality, fragmentary but indivisible, clothed in a costume of personality beneath which roil parts perpetually fighting for power, perpetually yearning for harmony. The person making the choices, the person bearing their consequences, and the person taking responsibility for them are rarely the same person. There is no pain like the pain of watching oneself overtaken by one’s most shameful parts — the chaotic, the compulsive, the ungenerous, the needy, governed by fear and lack, splattering confusion and distress over anyone who comes near.

To live with consciousness is to own all the parts but not be owned by any of them, to choose with clarity and composure which ones to act from. To love fully — oneself, or another — is to accept all the parts and cherish the totality.

D.H. Lawrence (September 11, 1885–March 2, 1930) captures this with poetic precision in his personal credo, composed in response to the thirteen qualities Benjamin Franklin identified as the wisest parts of personhood — temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.

D.H. Lawrence

“The soul has many motions, many gods come and go,” Franklin had observed in recognition of our composite nature. “Know that you are responsible to the gods inside you and to the men in whom the gods are manifest.” Lawrence writes in response:

Here’s my creed, against Benjamin’s. This is what I believe:

“That I am I.”
“That my soul is a dark forest.”
“That my known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest.”
“That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into the clearing of my known self, and then go back.”
“That I must have the courage to let them come and go.”
“That I will never let mankind put anything over me, but that I will try always to recognize and submit to the gods in me and the gods in other men and women.”

There is my creed.

Art by the 16th-century Portuguese artist Francisco de Holanda. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

It is not easy living with those constant visitations from conflicting gods, each with a different dictate, impelling you toward a different path. What makes it all bearable is seeing this constellation of parts as a part of something greater still — a vast and coherent universe governed by immutable laws and immense forces that vanquish the grandiose smallness of the self and its warring fragments, that render life too great and total a miracle to be met with anything but a resounding “yes yes — please.”

Lawrence channels this perspectival consolation in his 1930 book Apocalypse (public library) — a reflection on The Book of Revelation, composed as he lay dying from tuberculosis in a sanatorium, not yet midway through his forties.

Observing that what we most long for is our “living unison,” he writes:

The vast marvel is to be alive… The supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive. Whatever the unborn and the dead may know, they cannot know the beauty, the marvel of being alive in the flesh. The dead may look after the afterwards. But the magnificent here and now of life in the flesh is ours, and ours alone, and ours only for a time. We ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh, and part of the living, incarnate cosmos. I am part of the sun as my eye is part of me. That I am part of the earth my feet know perfectly, and my blood is part of the sea. My soul knows that I am part of the human race, my soul is an organic part of the great human soul… There is nothing of me that is alone and absolute except my mind, and we shall find that the mind has no existence by itself, it is only the glitter of the sun on the surface of the waters.

Complement with pioneering psychoanalyst Karen Horney on the conciliation of our inner conflicts and Scottish philosopher John Macmurray on the key to wholeness, then revisit Lawrence on the strength of sensitivity and the key to fully living.


But We Had Music: Nick Cave Reads an Animated Poem about Black Holes, Eternity, and How to Bear Our Lives

How, knowing that even the universe is dying, do we bear our lives?

Most readily, through friendship, through connection, through co-creating the world we want to live in for the brief time we have together on this lonely, perfect planet.

The seventh annual Universe in Verse — a many-hearted labor of love, celebrating the wonder of reality through science and poetry — occasioned a joyous collaboration with Australian musician and writer Nick Cave and Brazilian artist and filmmaker Daniel Bruson on an animated poem reckoning with this central question of being alive.

by Maria Popova

Right this minute
across time zones and opinions
people are
making plans
making meals
making promises and poems


at the center of our galaxy
a black hole with the mass of
four billion suns
screams its open-mouth kiss
     of oblivion.

Someday it will swallow
Euclid’s postulates and the Goldberg Variations,
swallow calculus and Leaves of Grass.

I know this.

And still
when the constellation of starlings
flickers across the evening sky,
it is     enough

to stand here
for an irrevocable minute
     agape with wonder.

It is     eternity.

At 7PM EST on April 7, tune into the livestream of the 2024 Universe in Verse, celebrating the science and wonder of eclipses, to hear Nick tell the ecliptic story of marrying the love of his life, alongside a constellation of other dazzling humans bringing to life the science of gravity and relativity, tides and black holes, the formation of the Moon and the chemistry of the Sun, through poems and stories that help us meet reality on its own terms and broaden the terms on which we meet ourselves and each other.

Couple with Daniel Bruson’s breathtaking animation of former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s poem “My God, It’s Full of Stars” from a previous season of The Universe in Verse, then revisit Nick Cave on the art of growing older and the antidote to our existential helplessness.


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