The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a collection of ingenuous words devised by a young man, John Koenig, who spent seven years reflecting on gaps in the English language. He was especially interested in situations that spark an emotion that feels distinct from the general flow. English has taken on words from other languages, such as the German schadenfreude, for the pleasure we feel in an opponent’s misfortune. The elections this month lit up schadenfreude circuits like Times Square among conservatives. But Koenig rightly suspected that Americans are struggling with an acute shortage of words that discriminate the fine shades of feeling that separate the “tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm” (chrysalism) and plata rasa, “the lulling sounds of a running dishwasher.”
Koenig’s dictionary is doing well, as is his Ted Talk, in which he spins out his philosophy of word invention. But I bring up the Dictionary right now as a vital resource for those in search of a fresh analysis of what happened in the recent election. I am among those who experienced both some chrysalism —McAuliffe’s gully gusher in Virginia did give me a moment of tranquility — and some plata rasa. The hum of an election washing away the incumbent dregs does indeed induce a sense of inner peace.
But these are fleeting comforts, and leave us no better off in comprehending either the complicated mixture of optimism and dread that now characterizes the American right, or the even more tangled melée on the left between progressive revanchists and liberal recalibraters. It is a kelp forest of competing recriminations down there. The Sanders-AOC wing maintains the Democrats lost ground in the election because their all-left-all-the-time party hadn’t gone left enough. The James Carville and Maureen Dowd win-at-all-costs-even-compromise types countered that the party suffered because it had swung too far left.
Some observers are wondering aloud whether the moment has arrived when America will awaken from its wokeness. Will the wokeness metaphor at last devour itself, like the ouroboros, the mythical snake that swallows its own tail? The image of that snake, incidentally, has a grand history dating back to ancient Egypt, adorning the mystical texts of alchemists, and prompting the chemist August Kekule in 1865 to decipher the structure of the benzene molecule. For those who don’t remember their organic chemistry, picture Nancy Pelosi and Joe Manchin yoked head-to-foot and foot-to-head, while a sweet gasoline-like odor wafts through the House and Senate. Prolonged exposure causes the national immune system to fail.
A sign that ouroboros has returned is the declaration by Slate writer Joel Anderson that when white people use the word “woke” in anything other than a spirit of celebration, they mean it as a “racial slur.” AOC, however, is policing a different line: “Before people disingenuously complain ‘woke’ is denigrating to older people, it’s actually pundits like Carville using terms like ‘woke’ to insult voters under 45 that’s denigrating.” Either way, the syllable seems headed for the scrap heap of words deemed too hurtful to handle.
Many have turned to opinion polls and ballot analysis to decipher the post-election moment. That is no doubt important, but I suspect the national mood is far too fluid to be nailed down like that. What moved New Jersey voters to elect truck driver Edward Durr over long-serving Senate president Stephen Sweeney, and almost to dethrone Governor Phil Murphy, was not a sudden shift in the guiding principles of the electorate. It was rather an outburst of discontent, frustration and disappointment. The people in charge are exactly those we should blame for most of these feelings. Ordinary voters often can name the tributaries of River Misery: shutdowns, inflation, crime, COVID, shortages, critical race theory, racial division, illegal immigration, the botched pullout from Afghanistan, the prevaricating press, the prisoners in DC, the mandates, gender fluid rapists, law-breaking-but-never-held-accountable federal officials, senescent politicians, and more.
But the readiness of someone to tell a pollster which one issue was most important in picking a candidate surely goes astray. The real reason for the swing among swing voters is the Gestalt sense that we are heading downhill in a hurry. And the brakes aren’t working.
The left is now debating whether the right answer is to accelerate the descent in order to hasten the “total transformation” to come, or to try to steer the cart to a gentler slope. The wokest part of the Democratic Party has been driven since January 2021 by the fear that it needed to execute its agenda as fast as possible before the opportunity passed. Biden’s popularity was bound to be short-lived, as perhaps his time in office too; and the midterms always loomed as the date after which plans for radical “transformation” would probably perish. Joe’s get-as-much-done-as-you-can-before-the-rubes-catch-on presidency remains in place. Why stop now? In fact, if the end is nigh, let’s move even faster.
The more temperate souls among the Democrats are thinking longer-term. They would like to retain as much power as long as possible, which requires winning elections without having to rely overmuch on trunks of 2 a.m. ballots discovered in Davy Jones’s locker. A counsel of temperateness, however, faces a tough contest against the apostles of retribution. The hard left wants to punish America in the name of anti-racism, social justice, green energy and all-round equity. The moderate left endorses those goals while seeking a path that makes their pursuit a little less scary to the people who, sooner or later, will be ravaged by them. Much of the American business community has sidled into agreement with this tamer, greenish, semi-apocalyptic, repentant-white-people-still-welcome agenda.
On the conservative side, the goals themselves are viewed mostly with contempt. These are the voters who want their republic back, as little broken as possible.
What does this mean for “wokeness”? It means it’s time to freshen our vocabulary. Another phrase that has been heavily worked by the left in recent years is “exhaustion.” I am exhausted, says the identitarian activist, by always having to stand up against the microaggressions of the stupid people around me. I am exhausted says the boy-pretending-to-be-a-girl or vice versa by always having to defend my pronoun. The work of woke, apparently, is just plain exhausting. We need a reprieve.
Our deliverance is at hand in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. The supply chain of emotional goods has re-opened courtesy of Koenig’s introspective industry. I can only suggest a few from the rich list of possibilities he has coined. It will be up to others to dig deeper in the ore.
What can improve on or replace the idea of being “woke”? Koenig, for example, gives us nyctous, the joy of being awake in the middle of the night when everyone else is asleep and the world is quiet. The woke are “exhausted,” cranky, and perpetually unhappy. Perhaps they can be displaced by the nyctous, who find exulting freedom in their wakefulness.
The woke are also about to be endzoned, “the hollow feeling of having gotten exactly what you thought you wanted, only to learn that it didn’t make you happy.”
Those of us at war with woke might find it useful to see ourselves combatting pâro, “the feeling that everything you do is always somehow wrong,” that, for example, there is “no way to raise your kids that won’t leave them traumatized.”
We would all benefit if the woke realized they are suffering, like the rest of us, from ozurie, “feeling torn between the life you want and life you have.” And in a benevolent spirit, we might wish the woke to awaken again to lutalica, “the sense that you’re more than the categories that society puts you in.”
Of course, I don’t really expect these invented words to catch on, nice as that might be. What I expect is that hard left will continue to overreach by using all the powers of obstruction and imposition it can summon, along with all the “narrative” building that it can get away with. Pelosi’s January 6 Committee will continue to churn out the fable about insurrection and the Justice Department will continue to invent “domestic terrorists” where the rest of us see suburban moms and dads. President Biden will continue to look bewildered as his handlers deploy the powers of the Executive to erase borders and erect mandates. Moderate Democrats will hug themselves hoping it is not so. And we will head into the 2022 midterms with a not especially competent but a ferociously energized Republican Party ready to give an old-fashioned wake for the woke.