You’ve probably heard of “sonder.” It flooded our feeds as a cliche Instagram caption a few years back. It is, by definition, the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. And it’s also, according to its creator John Koenig, entirely made up.
Somewhere out there, I can hear gasps. You can’t do that — make up a word. Can you?
Words are so much more than just a vessel for communication. They’re more than just a way to indicate to your mom that “I’m hungry” or make a business transaction with the food vendor across the street. Words are used to transfer information, yes, but any rhetoric, linguistics or even computer science major will tell you that they’re also used for you to do something arguably much more important: think.
It’s a well-known fact that some languages have more words for certain things than others — for example, you can find multiple types of spiciness in Mandarin or different kinds of love in Greek. It’s a classic chicken-or-egg question: We only create words for things we think about, but in many ways, we can only think about things we have words for.
When I tell people that I hope to learn many more languages in my lifetime, they often look at me quizzically. “Why?” they ask. ”Seems a bit useless to me.” I can’t find the words to explain to them that, sometimes, you don’t know you’re feeling something until you have a word for it.
The French word “seigneur-terraces” — coffeeshop dwellers who stay way too long for the amount of money they spend — is something I’m sure more than enough of us are guilty of all the time. “Litost,” the Czech word for the state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery, is exactly how I was feeling last weekend. And, looking back, I really could have used the phrase “koi no yokan” — which means in Japanese the sense upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall in love — instead of groaning to my roommate that “he’s sooo cute” over and over again while lying on our rug, unable to sort out this strange, newfound feeling.
English, and any other language, is limiting — and when words such as sonder (or FOMO, for that matter) appear seemingly out of nowhere, we let them catch on because words help us define what’s important in our worlds.
After all, I’m not just cheeky or passionate or over-analytical. I am those things, but I’m also so much more than that. Even if I try to fumble for 500 adjectives to paint myself, I’m willing to bet there are 500,000 others with that exact same combination of characteristics.
So next time someone asks me to describe myself, I might just grin and say (cheekily):