The Language Magpie (S is for...)

The word in question in this edition of the language magpie isn't technically a real word. It was coined by John Koenig of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a compendium of words for emotions we may all feel at one time or another, but which currently do not have a naming word attached to them. One of my favourites, and one that I was reminded of a couple of weeks ago is Sonder.

Sonder is defined by Koenig as:

"The realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own"

I had this realisation, and a moment of overwhelming sonder after looking around an antique shop in Norwich a couple of weeks ago. Amongst the glass bottles, suitcases, books and 60s curtains there was a huge box of photographs and postcards. There were holiday snaps, wedding photos, dodgy family groups, picnics and beach scenes; hundreds of snippets of peoples lives packed into a box and on sale for 50p each.

I'm completely fascinated by who all these people are and, even more than that, how their memories ended up muddled up with those of strangers in a box rather than cherished in a family album. That little thatched cottage was obviously important enough for one of those precious 24 (or sometime 25 if you were lucky!) shots on a 35mm roll of film, so how did it end up here?

There's a particular image which I keep thinking about (and I kind of wish I'd bought) It's the one you can see in the photo above of the middle aged couple at what appears to be a wedding. Assuming I'm right, and the photo was indeed taken while the guests were waiting for the arrival of the bride, I wonder how the couple in photo were related to the newlyweds. It looks like it might have been taken in the 80s, which is when my parents got married. I wonder if the couple had children, if they did they'd be about my age. I wonder if I know them? I mean, the chances are pretty slim, the photo might have been taken anywhere in the country but you never know. All we know for sure is what's been captured in that frame, but those two people, and all those other people sitting around them were children once, the went to school and got told off and dreamt of what they'd be when they grew up. They got jobs and bought houses and shopped for lawnmowers and bread and wedding outfits. And even more mind-bending is that their lives continued after this photo...they danced at the reception, they got taxis home, sent their films off to be processed then looked fondly at the photos when they popped through the letter box, maybe they even framed some of them. I wonder if they're still alive. It's a strange and morbid thing to think about, but I wonder if that's how their photo ended up in a box...

This feeling happens quite often when I'm on the bus, I'm usually focused on just getting home, planning dinner and getting under a blanket (which I've been, not very ecologically, putting in the tumble dryer for a few minutes - heaven!) Sometimes though, a little snippet of conversation will catch my attention and I'll remember that all these people are heading home too, to their families, or pets, or just to their own thoughts. I recently heard a man reassuring his wife that he would be fine, that there was an M&S readymade lasagne in the fridge and he hadn't eaten all of the meals she'd left for him yet so she could stay away for another night and he'd be just fine! There's a woman I see quite often who's been knitting something red for the last few weeks, and two students, one who is clearly totally in love with the other (who unfortunately seems to have no interest!) It's weird to imagine that these people have lives after they leave the bus, that life isn't like playing a computer game where once you've walked out of a scene it dissolves away behind you and only the moment you're currently in exists. It's a bit like that old philosophy question, if a tree falls in the woods and there's nobody to hear it, does it still make a sound? My husband would try to answer this scientifically with some technical response about sound waves and the inner ear, but really - does anything really happen if theres nobody there to notice? This is making me want to re-read Sophie's World, which if you haven't read - you really must!

I've found a couple more 'words' in Koenigs dictionary that resonate with patterns of behaviour or emotions I have too:

Jouska - hypothetical converstations that you compulsively play out in your head.

Ambedo - a kind of melancholic trance in which you become absorbed in sensory details, briefly soaking in the experience of being alive, and act that is done purely for it's own sake.

Anemoia - nostalgia for a time you've never known.



  1. I love making up histories for people I see. It always intrigues me that somewhere Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Helen Mirren, the Queen for that matter, are all looking out at the world through their eyes, just like I am - don't why that fascinates me, but it does

  2. anemoia. that's the one for me. I always feel like i miss a time in history i never lived. but it actually isn't missing, is it? it's longing to have lived it. Anyway, i remember thinking something similar to your bus ponderings when i visited this vintage sale in an disused old church in Norwich. Piles and piles of old objects, all of them must have belonged to someone, used in their daily life... who were they... all very puzzling and misterious...I bought a little saucer that I keep on my shelf. The stories it must have!