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TEDxBerkeley

John Koenig: Beautiful new words to describe obscure emotions

February 6, 2016

John Koenig loves finding words that express our unarticulated feelings -- like "lachesism," the hunger for disaster, and "sonder," the realization that everyone else's lives are as complex and unknowable as our own. Here, he meditates on the meaning we assign to words and how these meanings latch onto us.

John Koenig - Writer
John Koenig is writing an original dictionary of made-up words. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Today I want to talk
about the meaning of words,
00:12
how we define them
00:16
and how they, almost as revenge,
00:17
define us.
00:20
The English language
is a magnificent sponge.
00:21
I love the English language.
I'm glad that I speak it.
00:24
But for all that, it has a lot of holes.
00:27
In Greek, there's a word, "lachesism"
00:30
which is the hunger for disaster.
00:32
You know, when you see
a thunderstorm on the horizon
00:36
and you just find yourself
rooting for the storm.
00:40
In Mandarin, they have a word "yù yī" --
00:43
I'm not pronouncing that correctly --
00:45
which means the longing
to feel intensely again
00:47
the way you did when you were a kid.
00:51
In Polish, they have a word "jouska"
00:55
which is the kind of
hypothetical conversation
00:58
that you compulsively
play out in your head.
01:02
And finally, in German,
of course in German,
01:06
they have a word called "zielschmerz"
01:09
which is the dread
of getting what you want.
01:12
(Laughter)
01:15
Finally fulfilling a lifelong dream.
01:19
I'm German myself,
so I know exactly what that feels like.
01:23
Now, I'm not sure
if I would use any of these words
01:26
as I go about my day,
01:29
but I'm really glad they exist.
01:31
But the only reason they exist
is because I made them up.
01:33
I am the author of "The Dictionary
of Obscure Sorrows,"
01:37
which I've been writing
for the last seven years.
01:40
And the whole mission of the project
01:43
is to find holes
in the language of emotion
01:45
and try to fill them
01:51
so that we have a way of talking
about all those human peccadilloes
01:52
and quirks of the human condition
01:56
that we all feel
but may not think to talk about
01:58
because we don't have the words to do it.
02:02
And about halfway through this project,
02:05
I defined "sonder,"
02:07
the idea that we all think of ourselves
as the main character
02:09
and everyone else is just extras.
02:12
But in reality,
we're all the main character,
02:15
and you yourself are an extra
in someone else's story.
02:18
And so as soon as I published that,
02:22
I got a lot of response from people
02:26
saying, "Thank you for giving voice
to something I had felt all my life
02:27
but there was no word for that."
02:32
So it made them feel less alone.
02:35
That's the power of words,
02:37
to make us feel less alone.
02:40
And it was not long after that
02:44
that I started to notice sonder
02:45
being used earnestly
in conversations online,
02:47
and not long after I actually noticed it,
02:52
I caught it next to me
in an actual conversation in person.
02:55
There is no stranger feeling
than making up a word
02:58
and then seeing it
take on a mind of its own.
03:01
I don't have a word
for that yet, but I will.
03:05
(Laughter)
03:07
I'm working on it.
03:08
I started to think
about what makes words real,
03:11
because a lot of people ask me,
03:15
the most common thing
I got from people is,
03:16
"Well, are these words made up?
I don't really understand."
03:19
And I didn't really know what to tell them
03:22
because once sonder started to take off,
03:24
who am I to say what words
are real and what aren't.
03:26
And so I sort of felt like Steve Jobs,
who described his epiphany
03:29
as when he realized that most of us,
as we go through the day,
03:34
we just try to avoid
bouncing against the walls too much
03:37
and just sort of get on with things.
03:40
But once you realize that people --
03:43
that this world was built
by people no smarter than you,
03:48
then you can reach out
and touch those walls
03:51
and even put your hand through them
03:54
and realize that you have
the power to change it.
03:55
And when people ask me,
"Are these words real?"
03:58
I had a variety of answers
that I tried out.
04:02
Some of them made sense.
Some of them didn't.
04:04
But one of them I tried out was,
04:06
"Well, a word is real
if you want it to be real."
04:08
The way that this path is real
because people wanted it to be there.
04:12
(Laughter)
04:16
It happens on college
campuses all the time.
04:17
It's called a "desire path."
04:20
(Laughter)
04:21
But then I decided,
what people are really asking
04:22
when they're asking if a word is real,
they're really asking,
04:24
"Well, how many brains
will this give me access to?"
04:27
Because I think that's
a lot of how we look at language.
04:32
A word is essentially a key
04:35
that gets us into certain people's heads.
04:38
And if it gets us into one brain,
04:41
it's not really worth it,
04:44
not really worth knowing.
04:46
Two brains, eh, it depends on who it is.
04:47
A million brains, OK, now we're talking.
04:49
And so a real word is one that gets you
access to as many brains as you can.
04:52
That's what makes it worth knowing.
04:59
Incidentally, the realest word of all
by this measure is this.
05:02
[O.K.]
05:06
That's it.
05:08
The realest word we have.
05:09
That is the closest thing we have
to a master key.
05:10
That's the most commonly
understood word in the world,
05:13
no matter where you are.
05:16
The problem with that is,
05:17
no one seems to know
what those two letters stand for.
05:18
(Laughter)
05:21
Which is kind of weird, right?
05:23
I mean, it could be a misspelling
of "all correct," I guess,
05:25
or "old kinderhook."
05:29
No one really seems to know,
but the fact that it doesn't matter
05:30
says something about
how we add meaning to words.
05:34
The meaning is not
in the words themselves.
05:37
We're the ones
that pour ourselves into it.
05:41
And I think, when we're all searching
for meaning in our lives,
05:45
and searching for the meaning of life,
05:49
I think words have
something to do with that.
05:51
And I think if you're looking
for the meaning of something,
05:55
the dictionary is a decent place to start.
05:58
It brings a sense of order
06:01
to a very chaotic universe.
06:03
Our view of things is so limited
06:06
that we have to come up
with patterns and shorthands
06:09
and try to figure out
a way to interpret it
06:12
and be able to get on with our day.
06:14
We need words to contain us,
to define ourselves.
06:17
I think a lot of us feel boxed in
06:21
by how we use these words.
06:24
We forget that words are made up.
06:25
It's not just my words.
All words are made up,
06:28
but not all of them mean something.
06:31
We're all just sort of
trapped in our own lexicons
06:33
that don't necessarily correlate
with people who aren't already like us,
06:37
and so I think I feel us drifting apart
a little more every year,
06:42
the more seriously we take words.
06:47
Because remember, words are not real.
06:51
They don't have meaning. We do.
06:55
And I'd like to leave you with a reading
06:58
from one of my favorite philosophers,
07:01
Bill Watterson, who created
"Calvin and Hobbes."
07:04
He said,
07:06
"Creating a life that reflects
your values and satisfies your soul
07:08
is a rare achievement.
07:12
To invent your own life's meaning
07:14
is not easy,
07:16
but it is still allowed,
07:18
and I think you'll be
happier for the trouble."
07:20
Thank you.
07:23
(Applause)
07:24

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John Koenig - Writer
John Koenig is writing an original dictionary of made-up words.

Why you should listen

John Koenig has spent the last seven years writing an original dictionary of made-up words, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, which fills gaps in the language with hundreds of new terms for emotions. This project seeks to restore sadness to its original meaning (from Latin satis, "fullness") by defining moments of melancholy that we may all feel, but never think to mention -- deepening our understanding of each other by broadening the emotional palette, from avenoir, "the desire to see memories in advance," to zenosyne, "the sense that time keeps going faster."

Each entry is a collage of word roots borrowed from languages all around the world. Some entries are even beginning to enter the language outright:

sonder 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.

His original YouTube series, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, which he writes, edits and narrates himself, has drawn acclaim from John Green and Beyoncé to Michael from Vsauce. "Each episode is a soothing meditation on its subject, fortified by a hypnotic soundtrack and Koenig’s twistingly intelligent narration," writes The Daily Dot.

He currently works as a freelance video editor, voice actor, graphic designer, illustrator, photographer, director and writer. His writing has been published in countless tattoos, stories, song titles and band names, but never on paper -- though he is currently working on publishing a book adaptation. Originally from Minnesota and Geneva, Switzerland, John lives in Budapest with his wife.

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