Making Up Words

By PJ Parrish

It’s raining here today. And I just finished my French Babbel lesson, which happened to focus on weather. Both things made me realize how much I love words.

I love learning new ones. This morning, reading a newspaper opinion piece on the grid crisis going on in Texas, I found out what a kakistocracy is.

I love finding out where words come from. Geezer is cool example. It comes from the obsolete word guiser, meaning someone who walks around in disguise, a performer in a masquerade. So a word that was used in the Middle Ages to refer to an actor now means a crabby old dude. Unless you’re British, then it’s just slang for bloke.

I love idioms. They give special spice to the places where we live. Like I said, it’s raining here in Tallahassee today. It’s raining cats and dogs. If I were in Tupelo, where my friend Philip was born, it would be raining harder than a cow pissing on a flat rock. If I were in Toulouse, Il fait un temps de chien. (The weather would have gone to the dogs).

I love the sounds some words make. Splat! Kaboom! Murmur…hiss…sizzle. There is a ten-dollar word for this I learned in high school — onomatopoeia. The French, I have learned via Babbel, have their own versions of sound-effect words. Badaboum! means crash! Patati patata is their version of yada yada yada. Miam Miam is French for yum-yum although to my ear it sounds like a cat who’s digging his Fancy Feast.

I love how we take a word that means one thing and make it stand for something else. Metaphors and similes tickle me to death. A boxer has cauliflower ears. Same in French, by the way: oreilles en feuille de chou. A CEO might be a big wheel, but in France he’s une grosse legume (a fat vegetable, which seems very fitting in many cases).  And there are all the great variations on a theme for not-so-bright folks: He’s not the brightest bulb on the tree, sharpest knife in the drawer, a few fries short of a Happy Meal, dumber than a bag of hammers. And from my Tupelo-born friend Philip: If she were any dumber we’d have to water her. Or as the French say, elle a une araignée au plafond. Which means she has a spider on the ceiling. Which makes me think of our own idiom bats in the belfry. I had to go look up where that came from, of course. You fellow crime dogs are gonna like this. It dates back to 1897, from an article in the Paducah Daily Sun:

                 CHARGED WITH LUNACY.
Jane Jones Seems to Have Bats in Her Belfry.
Constables Patton and Futrell Have a Time Taking Her.


Jane Jones, who stood guard over the putrid remains of her daughter, Ella Jones, at her home on South Fourth street yesterday, and would not suffer them interred until Coroner Nance went to the house with a police officer, to enforce a burial, was arrested this morning by Constables Patton and Futrell on a writ of lunatico inquirendo and taken to the county jail. The aged woman evidently “has bats in her belfry,” and will be tried before Judge Bishop at 3 o’clock this afternoon.

Might be a book in there somewhere.

Which brings us full circle. Mostly, I love the process of trying to put a bunch of words together in just the right way so as to make someone else try to understand the world as I do. That is true of any of you who are reading this post now. You love to play with words. You love to stitch them together to make stories.

The rain is still coming down hard here in Tally, a steady tattoo backed up with a low rumble of base drum thunder. I’ve taken the laptop out to sit on the screened in porch so I can listen to it. I am filled with a deep, delicious feeling of chrysalism.

Don’t know that word? It means the amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm. It was coined by a John Koenig, a student at Macalester College in Minnesota. He was trying to write poetry and instead created The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. The idea was that it would contain all the words he needed for his poetry, including emotions that had never been linguistically described. He’s since created a website that one writer called “delightful for etymologists and wordsmiths…a beautiful experiment on the fine line between babble and Babel.”

You won’t know these words from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, but I bet you’ll recognize the feelings:

  • Sonder: The realization that each passerby has a life as vivid and complex as your own.
  • Opia: The ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable.
  • Monachopsis: The subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place.
  • Énouement: The bittersweetness of having arrived in the future, seeing how things turn out, but not being able to tell your past self.
  • Rubatosis: The unsettling awareness of your own heartbeat.
  • Kenopsia: The eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that is usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet.
  • Mauerbauertraurigkeit: The inexplicable urge to push people away, even close friends who you really like.
  • Jouska: A hypothetical conversation that you compulsively play out in your head.
  • Anecdoche: A conversation in which everyone is talking, but nobody is listening
  • Ellipsism: A sadness that you’ll never be able to know how history will turn out.
  • Kuebiko: A state of exhaustion inspired by acts of senseless violence.
  • Exulansis: The tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it.
  • Rückkehrunruhe: The feeling of returning home after a trip only to find it fading rapidly from your awareness.
  • Liberosis: The desire to care less about things.
  • Altschmerz: Weariness with the same old issues that you’ve always had – the same boring flaws and anxieties that you’ve been gnawing on for years.
  • Occhiolism: The awareness of the smallness of your perspective

And there’s this one: Nodus Tollens: The realization that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore.

I’ll finish with my favorite: Vellichor: The strange wistfulness of used bookshops.

The rain has stopped finally. And so have I. Go make up some words.


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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at

29 thoughts on “Making Up Words

  1. Ah, memories of my father. No education beyond high school, but his love of words (and plays on them) remains with me. He didn’t use “big, obscure words.” He just made them up.

    • You made me think of my beloved dad-in-law, a self-taught Shakespeare scholar whose love of puns had us in tears of laughter at the dinner table. 🙂

  2. Thanks so much for this, Kris. I went looking for the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (LOVE that title!) on Amazon and found that it will be published in November 2021. That led me to the website, which will be my TOD (Timesuck of the Day). Great stuff!

  3. Great stuff, Kris.

    Here’s a new meaning to an existing word. By the end of the winter in western Ohio, being sick and tired of snow, I have said for years that “snow” is a four letter word.” This year we have been buried so long, that I gave the snow a new name, “SNIT.” I think you can guess what two words were combined to create that one.

    • We’ve used “snit” in my family for years… I always wondered where it came from… 😋 (though in our case it had more to do with one having one’s nose all out of joint…)

  4. What a great discovery, Kris. Thanks!

    There must a word in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows that meets this definition:

    The hard drive in my brain is full and has no more memory.

    I’ll spend today searching for that word.

    • Tried to find one for you and struck out. But did find out that the Greeks believed in two types of “minds” — encephalocentrism and cardiocentrism. Encephalocentrism is the theory that the mind is in the brain, and cardiocentrism holds that the mind is in the heart.

  5. Sonder and Opia are my favorite. They nail the emotion, IMO.

    My husband makes up words. Most days he drives me crazy with his mish-mash, but every once in a while he nails it.

    • I liked Kenopsia because he describes so many places in our era of virus. Like empty playgrounds.

  6. This reminded me of a story told by a dear friend who was a juvenile officer. The importance of knowing what a slang word means. They were working in south St. Louis County. A juvenile kept referring to narcs in their school. Juvenile officer was not aware of any narcotics detectives (narcs) working in that building.

    No. To the students drug USERS were narcs. detectives were cops.

  7. Rob Walker, the author of _The Art of Noticing_ has a chapter on “The Dictionary of Missing Words” – definitions without terms…
    and one titled “Toward A Dictionary of Missing Words…”

    The links to his web-site for these are:

    (I know they look cut-off… but that’s how it cut-n-pasted from the browser…)

    He invites one-n-all to submit requests and/or replies for definitions…

    “Geezer G…”

    • Sorry… should’ve been:
      “Toward A Dictionary of Missing Words”
      “Hunting for Feelings”


  8. Great stuff, Kris!

    I drive my husband crazy with my focus on words and idioms and where they come from. Occasionally, I run across a word that tickles my wordish fancy and post it on my social media channels as Word of the Day, but don’t define it. My hope is that peeps will scurry for a dictionary and educate themselves.

    My fave in this post? Kuebiko: A state of exhaustion inspired by acts of senseless violence. A perfect description of the World of 2020…

    • Yeah, that one stood out to me as well. And Kenopsis…strange emptiness of once bustling places.

    • On my Facebook Author Page, every morning, I invite others to take the Word of the Day I get from and make up their own definitions. The only rule is ‘no real definitions allowed.’ I love watching what they come up with. Today’s word was polyglot. First definition provided was “A person who has a lot of parrots.”

  9. Great post, Kris. Reminds me of my growing up in rural Manitoba. Like the Eskimos having a hundred words for snow, we had a hundred words for getting drunk. Enjoy your day!

    • Aw come on, you can’t post that without giving us at least one example from Canada!. My favorite French idiom for being drunk is “Elle a un verre dans le nez.” (She has a glass in her nose.) 🙂

  10. If her IQ were ten points higher, she’d bear fruit.

    Sadly, most of us in popular genre rarely have a chance to use a made-up word or even a four-syllable word because that knocks our readers right out of the story which is one of the biggest no-nos for us. The only exceptions are Dean Koontz* whose vocabulary is so extensive some of the words can’t even be found and science fiction and fantasy where new words are needed for new worlds and ideas. During my early years of writing fiction, part of my editing process was rooting out vocabulary that was natural to me but would require a dictionary for most readers. I hated it, but it had to be done. Several lessons in my course on worldbuilding were on how to create and use made-up words and jargon without making the reader crazy or annoyed because new writers tend to do that.

    * Read the Koontz horror novel, ODD THOMAS, to admire the sheer audacity of his vocabulary as well as his obsession with science jargon and ideas.

  11. Great post, Kris. We love words around here. My husband coined a word for a medical imaging device he invented and patented: the Kinestatic Charge Detector (KCD). It describes something that is moving in one frame of reference, but still in another. To our knowledge, the word had never been used before he conceived it. We even had a serendipitous meeting with an assistant in the editorial staff of the OED back in the 80’s, and she looked into the possibility of it being included in the dictionary. But at that time, the word was only being used in academic/scientific circles, so no joy. But if you google the word now, it’s beginning to be a part of general usage. I need to invent a word for the happiness I would experience to see “kinestatic” show up in the OED.

    If anybody’s interested, I wrote a short article about the word as an intro to an interview I did with James Scott Bell in March of 2020:

    • I was curious and Googled kinestatic. Nothing comes up but it makes perfect sense in the context you mentioned. Re your personal word for happiness if the word gets in the OED: kinecstasy?

      • Google will change the search based on what it assumes you are searching for and will note that it is “Showing results for kinesthetic.” But underneath that line, it says, “Search instead for kinestatic.” If you click that link, it will show results for the word you wanted rather than the one Google decided you really meant. (Don’t you love our electronic nannies?)

        kinecstasy! Definitely the word I need. Thank you. \0/

  12. The sun has warmed a patch of floor. A cheerful breeze tries to sneak past the storm door, teasing me with the promise of the coming spring and of sweeping away the still air of a house closed up against the winter’s cold.

    I lift my head from my hand, sensing the altschmerz grown in this year-long kenopsia is lifting. A jouska of reproach for accomplishing less than I hoped quiets, if only for a moment. On this day, with the unfamiliar brilliance of our sky, it is hard to avoid a bit of occhiolism. But nodus tollens has miraculously inspired me. If life no longer makes sense, then there’s the opportunity to reshape that life today.

    Thank you, PJ, for sharing this today. You’ve fed my love of words—old words, new words, fancy words, and simple words. I just preordered The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows and look forward to hours of acquiring new language (and to making up some of my own).

  13. “Kenopsia” hit me. I experienced it without knowing there was a word for it when I was hanging around the Killer Nashville hotel atrium on a Sunday afternoon when everyone had left.

    I’m guessing John Koenig coined it–all the defs that show up in a search seem to quote his definition in the _Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows_. None gives the etymology.

    Looks like it’s derived from the Greek kenosis, “action of emptying, from kenoun to purge, empty, from kenos empty.” People exposed to theology might recognized its use to refer to Christ’s emptying himself of divine attributes in becoming human.”

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