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Home » The Conquest of New Words: John Koenig at TEDxBerkeley (Transcript)

The Conquest of New Words: John Koenig at TEDxBerkeley (Transcript)

John Koenig – TRANSCRIPT

Thanks for sticking around, thanks for having a big red X burned into your eyeballs for the next three days. Today I want to talk about the meaning of words, how we define them and how they, almost as revenge, define us. The English language is a magnificent sponge. I love the English language. I’m glad that I speak it. I think you are all lucky to speak it, as well. But for all that, it has a lot of holes.

In Greek, there’s a word, “lachesism” which is the hunger for disaster. You know, when you see a thunderstorm on the horizon and you just find yourself rooting for the storm. In Mandarin, they have a word “yù yī” — I’m not pronouncing that correctly — which means the longing to feel intensely again the way you did when you were a kid. In Polish, they have a word “jouska” which is the kind of hypothetical conversation that you compulsively play out in your head. And finally, in German, of course in German, they have a word called “Zielschmerz,” which is the dread of getting what you want.

Finally fulfilling a lifelong dream I’m German myself, so I know exactly what that feels like. Now, I’m not sure if I would use any of these words as I go about my day, but I’m really glad they exist. But the only reason they exist is because I made them up. I am the author of “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” which I’ve been writing for the last seven years.

And the whole mission of the project is to find holes in the language of emotion and try to fill them so that we have a way of talking about all those human peccadilloes and quirks of the human condition that we all feel but may not think to talk about because we don’t have the words to do it. It started watching the end credits of “Saturday Night Live,” and I was beset by the most beautiful and haunting melancholy. If you ever get a chance to stay up that late, I would urge you to watch the end credits of SNL. And so, I decided to try to define that emotion. And about halfway through this project, I defined “sonder,” the idea that we all think of ourselves as the main character and everyone else is just extras.

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