Juliet Capulet isn’t the only one asking “what’s in a name?” As it turns out, the Shakespearean leading lady might have been onto
something 400 years ago.

Author and designer John Koenig, in his curiosity about the power of words, is building an entire collection of names he invents for our nameless emotions. In the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, he dedicates a lot of time and effort to define the words that define our feelings.

Take the word sonder, for example: the feeling you get when you realize other people are living their own complex lives and are not merely an extra in the story of your life. Sonder is perhaps the most popular word to come out of Koenig’s dictionary, but others have popped up in books, movies and regular conversations all over the planet.

Koenig’s made-up words are linguistically elegant—they seem to transcend the traditional rules and borrow from languages from around the world. In that way, they unify us in both substance and presentation.

Here’s a curated sampling of these words (with paraphrased meanings) to help you get the idea:

  • Altchmerz: being sick and tired of having the same old boring problems.
  • Wytai: realizing that a common behavior or practice is suddenly kind of disturbing to you (like keeping animals in a zoo or
    transplanting organs)
  • Jouska: having a conversation with someone in your head
  • Exulansis: when you just stop trying to talk about your struggle because no one else can relate (sigh)

Sound familiar? This is the gift of a name. It makes people feel like they’re not alone. It gives us a common understanding of pieces of our humanity that we couldn’t articulate before we had it. It’s powerful stuff.

As we all search for meaning in our lives, it’s interesting to think about how names and words show up in that search. After all, every single word we know was made up by somebody, and it didn’t mean anything until we decided it did. The power of words is a power we assign them to fit our needs.

As Koenig says in his TEDx talk, “the meaning is not in the words themselves. We are the ones that pour ourselves into them.” He uses the word “OK” as an example; one of the most widely understood words in the world, yet no one really knows what those two letters actually stand for.

Here at Black Sheep, we come up with names and new words all the time—some for our clients (start-ups, programs, and groups) and some just for us. We know well the importance, the intricacies and the struggle of naming something. And while it’s tempting to fall into liberosis (the desire to care less about things) and believe that all names are just arbitrary words we can assign meaning to, we tend to do the opposite. We care so much that we go down every rabbit hole, exhaust every idea, and think through every option before settling on the perfect one. And then we start the rigorous questioning process all over
again.

Maybe someday we’ll have a word for that.
>Natalie, @itsNatWells