The Student Movement


Naming the Familiar: Emotions, Experiences, & our Insufficient Language

Alexander Navarro

Photo by Patrick Tomasso (Unsplash)

Siso is defined as “a solitary experience you wish you could have shared with someone else—having dinner in a romantic setting, reaching the summit after an arduous climb, having a run-in with a crazy stranger that nobody’s going to believe—which makes you look around for confirmation that it even happened at all” (137). When I first saw this word, something about it stood out to me, resonated within my being. This was an experience I knew, a feeling I was familiar with, but I never had a word for it. Finding this word brought me a strange feeling of comfort, it told me that I am not alone in this world. It told me that since there is a word for that experience, other people have shared that same feeling. It gave me even a little bit of power over it; I now had a label, something I could use to grasp hold of the feeling, to identify it.

Language is powerful–it allows us to share with each other even a little bit about our internal lives that no one else can access. Having words to describe those internal experiences is important. As we all know, being unable to find the words to describe something can be frustrating and restricting, as it traps that thing within ourselves, unable to be shared with the world. While I think most people have experienced siso at some point in their lives, even if you have not, I am sure you can think of times where you have felt something, or experienced some emotion, and then felt that you couldn’t put a word to it, that the language you had was somehow insufficient, incomplete.

If you went and looked up siso in your usual dictionary, it wouldn’t be there. Some might say that siso is simply a made up word. Siso was created by John Koenig in his book “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” where he sought out feelings, emotions, experiences, and impressions that don’t have words in the English language, and then created words for them. The most famous of these is Sonder, defined as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” I think that this may even be a more universal feeling than siso–after all, I think we all believe that our own lives are pretty complex, as we are the protagonists in our own stories. But, there are more than 7 billion other people who are their own protagonists, for most of whom you and I are either side characters, or maybe even never appear. But even then, no matter how universal the experience is, if a word was just created by some person artificially, it isn’t a real word, right?

This all just begs the question: what makes a word real? We often think of language as this static entity; words are things that have existed for as long as we can remember, that we are taught as children and that we use for the rest of our lives. But, the recent acceleration of the development of technology and culture flies in the face of that idea. After all, the word “smartphone” wasn’t coined until 1996, and so, a word came into existence to describe something new. However, when a word is first used, it isn’t immediately added to the dictionary, so was “smartphone” a word when it was first used, or when it became common, or when it was added to the dictionary? If it was only a word when it was added to the dictionary, then there must have been no such thing as words before dictionaries existed, which is nonsense, so that leaves only the other two options; so which is it? I don’t know, I don’t know if anyone knows. But language is flexible, it adjusts to what it needs to be. Words are created as people find things they want to describe, and words disappear as people stop using them. So, the beginning of a new word is someone recognizing that the words they currently have are lacking. This is why I appreciate “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows”; even if the words are not “real” as many people would consider “real,” while you are reading them, they feel real. The words and definitions give almost a new vitality to what you may have felt your entire life, but just couldn’t put your finger on, like only now learning the name of someone you have known for years.

For many of the words in “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” reading the definition feels almost like reading poetry, or like looking at a painting. While it may not have rhythm or rhyme, the words speak to you, almost causing you to re-experience all of the times you felt what is written on the page. It serves as confirmation that your experience is real. So much of life is embodied by siso, we feel or experience something, but that experience is subjective, it is ours, it is trapped in our minds, where it is often difficult to communicate using our imperfect and insufficient language. Even if we wish to share what we feel, we can’t, as we are the only ones who have access to our own experiences. We may even begin to wonder whether what we experienced or felt happened at all. But the next time you share a smile with a stranger and find yourself wondering at the richness of their unknown life, the next time you find yourself outside a party contentedly listening to the festive laughter and talking inside, the next time you feel frustrated with the fact that we only get one life, the next time you feel the uncertain intensity of looking into another person’s eyes, rather than allowing that feeling to pass away in as much mystery as it arrived, you can greet it by name, sonder, midding, onism, opia, as an old, familiar friend.  

Koenig, J. (2021). "The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows". Simon & Schuster, USA.

The Student Movement is the official student newspaper of Andrews University. Opinions expressed in the Student Movement are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors, Andrews University or the Seventh-day Adventist church.