The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

by John Koenig

Simon & Schuster, 2021

ISBN 978-1-5011-53648

Do you like odd or unusual books? After reading a brief mention in an article, I discovered John Koenig’s The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Koenig creates new words to describe universal feelings, not all are sorrowful. The preface tells us, “This is a dictionary, a poem about everything.” The chapters organize the definitions into six themes: the outer world, the inner self, the people you know, the people you don’t, the passage of time, and the search for meaning.

Some definitions are written as brief essays, but most are short paragraphs. All contain the etymology of the term defined. Many of the terms are cobbled together from languages other than English. For example “altscherz” is a combination of German words for old and pain. Koenig defines it as our weariness for on-going problems, issues and anxieties. “Altscherz” made me wonder if I wanted to try out some new worries? Probably not.

Other definitions alter common words or phrases and give them new meanings. The “kick drop” is that feeling of disorientation when you wake from a dream that has immersed you in an altered life. Are you now living in the south of France? Or have you become a giraffe?

This is probably not a book that you will read straight through; it is worthy of savoring definition by definition. I imagine friends sitting with you while you share some of your favorite Koenig definitions. And then your minds will roam as you create your own magical entries for a personal dictionary. Koenig’s website ( is another great place to spend some time.

— Mary Barbera

Please support OutLook by the Bay with a subscription.

OutLook by the Bay magazine and this website are made possible through the support of our advertisers and subscribers. We guarantee you’ll learn something new each issue. Please subscribe today.