The word that’s not a word deserves defending


Taylor Harrington, Staff Writer

Every day I pass by hundreds of people: friends, family, acquaintances, and extras. The extras play a very small role in my life. Whether they smile and hold a door open for me as I walk into a store or simply eat lunch besides me at a restaurant, they’re strangers to me, and that’s likely all they will ever be. I know nothing about them, except for the one moment when our paths cross.


There’s a word to describe this moment of separated intimacy. It’s called “sonder”. Today, the definition is only found in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, an online dictionary known for defining words invented by the creator of the site John Koenig.


The definition listed for “sonder” is the following: “n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”


I’m utterly fascinated by this definition. I’ve always thought about this idea, but I never thought I would find a word that would define all that I wanted it to.


Even when I was young, I thought how unfortunate it is that there are so many lives I’ll never know about. I loved “people watching” wherever I was and coming up with stories in my head about what their lives were like, based on their voices, the way they walked, etc.

In fifth grade, I actually created an idea for a product with the intention of others seeing the beauty in “sonder” like I did. I designed a pair of sneakers so that a name could be printed on the bottom of the shoe. My thinking behind it was that when it rained and people stepped on a dry sidewalk, rather than seeing a bunch of damp footprints from their shoes, they’d see each other’s names overlapping on the cement; they would seen where their lives crossed, without knowing anything else about those strangers but their names.


A few years later, I watched the movie, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and fell in love with a particular scene because of its connection to “sonder.” In the scene, Daisy, one of the main characters, gets hit by a taxi while crossing a street. After the accident occurs, viewers learn the stories of seven strangers in the movie and how they indirectly played a role in Daisy’s injury that morning, including the man who woke up five minutes late and stalled the taxi as he crossed the road. The scene revealed the untold stories of the extras in Daisy’s life, the ones whose stories are usually untold, according to “sonder.”


Humans of New York, a Facebook and Instagram account with photos and captions of random people in New York City, also captures the magic of “sonder.” Brandon Stanton, the photographer, chooses random passerbys and shares a quote, usually a very complex personal story, and a picture of that person. This allows his social media followers to see strangers’  photographs and feel as though they know them. He makes his followers think about “sonder” even though they may have never heard of this word before, and perhaps he hasn’t either.


There was definitely a feeling of satisfaction when I was introduced to this word last year. It made all those countless minutes that I’ve spent thinking about this idea worthwhile. I’m not alone in my own little complex life wondering about everyone else’s, someone else out there, the creator of this word, is curious as well.
“Sonder” will stay on my mind as I move on to college, where everyone will start off as a stranger. Although I’ll create a circle of friends and acquaintances again, in a school of over 46,000 undergraduate students, I’ll still be able to sit in a coffee shop or walk through the quad and people watch, building stories and lives in my head about the people around me, thinking about the beauty of  sonder.