Have you ever wandered off while sitting down―all in your head, all out of wonder? Ever imagined multiple lives for yourself? Ever wondered how there are a gazillion lives that are all affected by the interconnectedness of everything? Has there been a time when you have wanted to exchange places, or be at multiple places, living multiple lives at the same time? If you have, my friend, we are aboard the same boat and I hope your frustration wards off just as soon as I wish for mine to leave. Or maybe, just maybe, better yet, this wonder is what keeps us afloat, keeps us from dreading the worst. We know there’s a lot that exists, we know we may never know about it all, and maybe it’s this wonder that keeps us excited to be alive. I may be rationalising here and I promise to get rid of this defence mechanism as soon as I find a better one. But language is funny in more ways than not. We feel liberated using it, and at the same time, there is also a strange kind of entrapment. We cannot communicate without words, and yet are words sufficient to voice everything we feel?
Personally, I did not know that the frustration of being limited to one experience was a common dilemma, I had no idea there was even a name for it, albeit none that one can use in their English essay. Onism, and we shall all thank John Koenig for the same, is a word that tries to explain the frustration of being stuck in just one body, that inhabits only one place at a time. It is understood to be like standing in front of the departures screen at an airport, flickering over with strange place names like other people’s passwords, each representing one more thing you will never get to see before you die―and all because, as the arrow on the map helpfully points out, you are here.
One can imagine how much more rich and satisfying it would be to have multiple bodies, not just one―so one could escape themselves for a while and live on the other side of the planet. Or take a step back and see themselves from someone else’s point of view, in full context with the rest of the world, with their face the right way around, their eyes un-flattened, just as vivid as one appears to other people. It would be like knowing yourself like others do, judging our own quirks but with much less self-loathing, just seeing them as unique factions of our being. However absurd the idea may seem; it would bring so much more clarity and joy. Of course, this may be coming from a place of bias, with myself being someone who has felt this for a long time and only just recently found out about the word that expresses it so well on an unanticipated night. A friend introduced me to The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows and that’s when I met with the genius work of John Koenig. This man is on a mission to fill the gaps incurred in the English language.
His dictionary includes words that describe emotions that one may feel but can’t put into motion through speech or writing, it includes questioning the limitations that language puts on us. One has to acknowledge that our bodies and minds are bombarded with so many complex sensations throughout the day that it would be impossible to assign a name to each. Feelings are a product of any stimulation one can procure―the lack of it―a phenomenon in itself. Even though Merriam and Oxford haven’t made it yet, Koenig with his popular Tumblr Blog and subsequent YouTube Channel and website is paving the way. TDOBS is intriguing because it presents a word that is obscure or completely invented and then connects it to a stylised video to further enhance the definition of that word. As Koenig indicates on his website, “Each original definition aims to fill a hole in the language—to give a name to emotions we all might experience but don’t yet have a word for.”
Koenig has said multiple times that the blog began with his desire to write poems. He made up words to help frame the poems better. He insists that the inception began at a dark time in his life. In his Ted Talk, Koenig recollects the time when his own melancholy triggered him to compose the dictionary, and how people later came up to him to thank him for his work. The graphic designer/editor/voice performer speaks of how his sombreness gave him a penchant for words. One should be aware of the fact that he makes sure that all his words have etymological significance. That they all have sense and reason behind them. TDOBS gained popularity with the wilfulness of Twitter, someone tweeted out 23 of the words and then, boom! The crowd came rushing, in shared understanding of the un-worded emotions. Words such as ‘sonder’ have made it to the bigwigs, with companies using them to name products. A very prominent bar in New York has named its drinks after the 23 popularised words; artists too have now started naming their paintings with the help of these words, so as to express themselves better.
One might wonder why out of every interesting word this man has invented, I longed to make this word the winter sun―Onism. Onism is a portmanteau of monism
- onanism. In philosophy, monism is the view that a variety of things can be explained in terms of a single reality or substance, or a distinct source. Onism can be seen as a kind of monism, because one’s life is indeed limited to a single reality, by virtue of being restricted to a single body, but something is clearly missing. Meanwhile, onanism is another word for masturbation or self-pleasure, transfixed inside our own menagerie of fantasies like going on a sightseeing tour of our own apartment—frustrating in its closed-off familiarity. Again, something is missing. What makes it even more special is that Onism was born while Koenig was travelling in an airplane, across 6 countries, in the process of moving places and struggling with the idea of a new life. To me, this brings in the idea more so than anything else. It makes me think of Remedial Chaos Theory: there are lots of me in other timelines who - collectively - have done everything I have not. It is the awareness of everything you are giving up, to be where you are right now. It is questioning the excuses we have invented to explain why so much of our life belongs in the background. Koenig very well expresses this in how he words his video transcripts- “We sketch monsters on the map because we find their presence comforting. They guard the edges of the abyss, and force us to look away; so, we can live comfortably in the Known World, at least for a little while.” An analogy I came across may help you visualise it better.
By the time we enter primary school, we have heard all about the planets in our Solar System. As we grow older, we learn that the Solar System is just a speck in the Milky Way Galaxy, and that there are thousands of galaxies out there, peppering our universe with their glow and might. The celestial mysteries that beckon to us are countless, but we resign ourselves to the fact that they are limited to computer screens and observatories. We accept the fact that the stars are too far away to take seriously, that Jupiter has a turbulent red spot over twice the size of our planet, that the moon will always be a distant relative. So instead, we look around at how far the horizon is and how hauntingly it encircles us. That scircle is just a fleck of life, dotted on the surface of the earth.
We may think about the number of adventures we could be having, the divergent memories we could be creating, the new people we could be meeting—within the ring that encircles us. We have only one body, although our minds would surely wish we had ten. The world becomes even more intriguing once we extricate ourselves from that ring- there are mountains and slopes waiting to be climbed, fields of snow waiting to be shaped into spheres and thrown, peaks that are craving to be mounted, oceans with shadowy depths, beautiful creatures, and fish that we still do not know exist. There are villages waiting to be visited, whose culture is unlike anything we have ever witnessed. There are waterfalls, rainforests, and glaciers still unknown to the human mind, foreign sunshine that is waiting to infuse itself into our bloodstreams, caves that scream adrenaline and excitement. There are airplanes, trains, cars, bicycles, and our own two feet. But something stops us, limitations confine us. The lack of time, money, and flexibility in our schedules. The fact that the seconds keep ticking by, that so much of our time goes in useless endeavours we will never remember. And the reality that we cannot be in two places at once. The fact that our two feet are rooted in the same place, that there are millions of places we could be in right now—but we are always forced to choose one. That when we are at the airport, we have only one destination to go to—while the other cities flicker like candlelight on a windy afternoon. When we drive a car, there are thousands of alternate routes we could take. And yet, we do not—because we believe that we are not meant to deviate from our predetermined route. In other words, we are unknowingly ensnared. Onism is the frustration of knowing how little of the universe we will be able to appreciate; the impatience of seeing the stars twinkling at night, as if mocking our inability to escape the ground. But somehow, it only makes us dream more. Our inability to traverse the Solar System makes us imagine; it makes us envisage a universe that is probably more beautiful and romantic than what it really is.
One may construe Onism as something that resembles sadness or sorrow, or one may call it the Chi Force and what keeps us alive, but whatever it may be thought of as- we are all affected by it, however it may come. I’d really encourage people to go about looking for The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows and open their minds to new words that express age-old emotions.
Given the chance, I’d definitely like to end with a line from Koenig’s script-
“But if someone were to ask you on your Deathbed
What it was like to live here on Earth
Perhaps the only honest answer would be,
I don’t know, I passed through it once, but I’ve never really been there.”
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