40 Words For Emotions You’ve Felt, But Couldn’t Explain

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Exulansis: when theres not an actual word for what youre trying to explain. We feel more than we have the language to articulate and express, which is in itself profoundly frustrating. People work through emotions by being able to identify them and use them as signals. A lot of the time, were left in the dark. Enter the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, the brainchild of writer John Koenig, who is here to give you words for the feelings you may not have even known you were having. Here are 40 of them:


. the awareness of how little of the world youll experience. Imagine standing in front of the departures screen at an airport, flickering over with strange place names like other peoples passwords, each representing one more thing youll never get to see before you dieand all because, as the arrow on the map helpfully points out, you are here.

Mal de Coucou

. a phenomenon in which you have an active social life but very few close friendspeople who you can trust, who you can be yourself with, who can help flush out the weird psychological toxins that tend to accumulate over timewhich is a form of acute social malnutrition in which even if you devour an entire buffet of chitchat, youll still feel pangs of hunger.


. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your ownpopulated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited crazinessan epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that youll 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.

Hanker Sore

. finding a person so attractive it actually kinda pisses you off.


. the amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm, listening to waves of rain pattering against the roof like an argument upstairs, whose muffled words are unintelligible but whose crackling release of built-up tension you understand perfectly.


. weariness with the same old issues that youve always hadthe same boring flaws and anxieties youve been gnawing on for years, which leaves them soggy and tasteless and inert, with nothing interesting left to think about, nothing left to do but spit them out and wander off to the backyard, ready to dig up some fresher pain you might have buried long ago.


. the awareness of the smallness of your perspective, by which you couldnt possibly draw any meaningful conclusions at all, about the world or the past or the complexities of culture, because although your life is an epic and unrepeatable anecdote, it still only has a sample size of one, and may end up being the control for a much wilder experiment happening in the next room.


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

Nodus Tollens

. the realization that the plot of your life doesnt make sense to you anymorethat although you thought you were following the arc of the story, you keep finding yourself immersed in passages you dont understand, that dont even seem to belong in the same genrewhich 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.


. the desire to care less about thingsto loosen your grip on your life, to stop glancing behind you every few steps, afraid that someone will snatch it from you before you reach the end zonerather to hold your life loosely and playfully, like a volleyball, keeping it in the air, with only quick fleeting interventions, bouncing freely in the hands of trusted friends, always in play.


. the frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already existthe same sunset, the same waterfall, the same curve of a hip, the same closeup of an eyewhich 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.


. the moment you realize that youre currently happyconsciously trying to savor the feelingwhich prompts your intellect to identify it, pick it apart and put it in context, where it will slowly dissolve until its little more than an aftertaste.


. the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of timefilled with thousands of old books youll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured.


. the feeling of returning home after an immersive trip only to find it fading rapidly from your awarenessto the extent you have to keep reminding yourself that it happened at all, even though it felt so vivid just days agowhich makes you wish you could smoothly cross-dissolve back into everyday life, or just hold the shutter open indefinitely and let one scene become superimposed on the next, so all your days would run together and youd never have to call cut.


. a recurring thought that only seems to strike you late at nightan overdue task, a nagging guilt, a looming and shapeless futurethat circles high overhead during the day, that pecks at the back of your mind while you try to sleep, that you can successfully ignore for weeks, only to feel its presence hovering outside the window, waiting for you to finish your coffee, passing the time by quietly building a nest.

Dead Reckoning

. to find yourself bothered by someones death more than you would have expected, as if you assumed they would always be part of the landscape, like a lighthouse you could pass by for years until the night it suddenly goes dark, leaving you with one less landmark to navigate bystill able to find your bearings, but feeling all that much more adrift.


. the feeling that no matter what you do is always somehow wrongthat any attempt to make your way comfortably through the world will only end up crossing some invisible tabooas if theres 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.


. a feast celebrated on the day of your 26th birthday, which marks the point at which your youth finally expires as a valid excusewhen you must begin harvesting your crops, even if theyve barely taken rootand the point at which the days will begin to feel shorter as they pass, until even the pollen in the air reminds you of the coming snow.


. frustration with how long it takes to get to know someonespending the first few weeks chatting in their psychological entryway, with each subsequent conversation like entering a different anteroom, each a little closer to the center of the housewishing instead that you could start there and work your way out, exchanging your deepest secrets first, before easing into casualness, until youve built up enough mystery over the years to ask them where theyre from, and what they do for a living.

Rigor Samsa

. a kind of psychological exoskeleton that can protect you from pain and contain your anxieties, but always ends up cracking under pressure or hollowed out by timeand will keep growing back again and again, until you develop a more sophisticated emotional structure, held up by a strong and flexible spine, built less like a fortress than a cluster of treehouses.


. the kind of unnoticed excellence that carries on around you every day, unremarkablythe hidden talents of friends and coworkers, the fleeting solos of subway buskers, the slapdash eloquence of anonymous users, the unseen portfolios of aspiring artistswhich would be renowned as masterpieces if only theyd been appraised by the cartel of popular taste, who assume that brilliance is a rare and precious quality, accidentally overlooking buried jewels that may not be flawless but are still somehow perfect.


. an image that somehow becomes lodged deep in your brainmaybe washed there by a dream, or smuggled inside a book, or planted during a casual conversationwhich then grows into a wild and impractical vision that keeps scrambling back and forth in your head like a dog stuck in a car thats about to arrive home, just itching for a chance to leap headlong into reality.


. a moment that seemed innocuous at the time but ended up marking a diversion into a strange new era of your lifeset in motion not by a series of jolting epiphanies but by tiny imperceptible differences between one ordinary day and the next, until entire years of your memory can be compressed into a handful of indelible imageswhich prevents you from rewinding the past, but allows you to move forward without endless buffering.


. a moment of awareness that someone youve known for years still has a private and mysterious inner life, and somewhere in the hallways of their personality is a door locked from the inside, a stairway leading to a wing of the house that youve never fully exploredan unfinished attic that will remain maddeningly unknowable to you, because ultimately neither of you has a map, or a master key, or any way of knowing exactly where you stand.


. a conversation in which everyone is talking but nobody is listening, simply overlaying disconnected words like a game of Scrabble, with each player borrowing bits of other anecdotes as a way to increase their own score, until we all run out of things to say.

Catoptric Tristesse

. the sadness that youll never really know what other people think of you, whether good, bad or if at allthat although we reflect on each other with the sharpness of a mirror, the true picture of how were coming off somehow reaches us softened and distorted, as if each mirror was preoccupied with twisting around, desperately trying to look itself in the eye.


. nostalgia for a time youve never known. Imagine stepping through the frame into a sepia-tinted haze, where you could sit on the side of the road and watch the locals passing by. Who lived and died before any of us arrived here, who sleep in some of the same houses we do, who look up at the same moon, who breathe the same air, feel the same blood in their veinsand live in a completely different world.


. the frustration of knowing how easily you fit into a stereotype, even if you never intended to, even if its unfair, even if everyone else feels the same wayeach of us trick-or-treating for money and respect and attention, wearing a safe and predictable costume because were tired of answering the question, What are you supposed to be?


. the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place, as maladapted to your surroundings as a seal on a beachlumbering, clumsy, easily distracted, huddled in the company of other misfits, unable to recognize the ambient roar of your intended habitat, in which youd be fluidly, brilliantly, effortlessly at home.


. a conversational hint that you have something personal to say on the subject but dont go any furtheran emphatic nod, a half-told anecdote, an enigmatic I know the feeling’which you place into conversations like those little flags that warn diggers of something buried underground: maybe a cable that secretly powers your house, maybe a fiberoptic link to some foreign country.


. the bittersweetness of having arrived here in the future, where you can finally get the answers to how things turn out in the real worldwho your baby sister would become, what your friends would end up doing, where your choices would lead you, exactly when youd lose the people you took for grantedwhich is priceless intel that you instinctively want to share with anybody who hadnt already made the journey, as if there was some part of you who had volunteered to stay behind, who was still stationed at a forgotten outpost somewhere in the past, still eagerly awaiting news from the front.


. an imaginary interview with an old photo of yourself, an enigmatic figure who still lives in the grainy and color-warped house you grew up in, who may well spend a lot of their day wondering where you are and what youre doing now, like an old grandma whose kids live far away and dont call much anymore.

Fata Organa

. a flash of real emotion glimpsed in someone sitting across the room, idly locked in the middle of some group conversation, their eyes glinting with vulnerability or quiet anticipation or cosmic boredomas if you could see backstage through a gap in the curtains, watching stagehands holding their ropes at the ready, actors in costume mouthing their lines, fragments of bizarre sets waiting for some other production.


. the desire that memory could flow backward. We take it for granted that life moves forward. But you move as a rower moves, facing backwards: you can see where youve been, but not where youre going. And your boat is steered by a younger version of you. Its hard not to wonder what life would be like facing the other way


. the eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place thats usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quieta school hallway in the evening, an unlit office on a weekend, vacant fairgroundsan 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.

The Tilt Shift

. a phenomenon in which your lived experience seems oddly inconsequential once you put it down on paper, which turns an epic tragicomedy into a sequence of figures on a model train set, assembled in their tiny classrooms and workplaces, wandering along their own cautious and well-trodden pathspeaceable, generic and out of focus.


. a hypothetical conversation that you compulsively play out in your heada crisp analysis, a cathartic dialogue, a devastating comebackwhich serves as a kind of psychological batting cage where you can connect more deeply with people than in the small ball of everyday life, which is a frustratingly cautious game of change-up pitches, sacrifice bunts, and intentional walks.

Ecstatic Shock

. the surge of energy upon catching a glance from someone you likea thrill that starts in your stomach, arcs up through your lungs and flashes into a spontaneous smilewhich scrambles your ungrounded circuits and tempts you to chase that feeling with a kite and a key.


. a relationship or friendship that you cant 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.


. the smallest measurable unit of human connection, typically exchanged between passing strangersa flirtatious glance, a sympathetic nod, a shared laugh about some odd coincidencemoments that are fleeting and random but still contain powerful emotional nutrients that can alleviate the symptoms of feeling alone.

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