The odd words of the English language

I came across an amazing word recently. Sonder. Not sunder, not wonder – sonder.

I experienced sonder when I was six or seven but had no idea there was a word for it.

I was in a Sydney train with a family member next to me (I presume) when the train pulled into a station. It was packed with humanity and within seconds many commuters had filled our carriage.

As the train pulled out more people were streaming onto the platform. I clearly remember thinking, or wondering, are all those people really still there after I’ve gone past? Then the realisation hit me, so clearly, they all live their own separate lives. Now I can think, duh, of course, but it was like a bolt from the blue to me.

I found ‘sonder’ in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Obscure is the right word here as it contains many unusual words that are largely unheard of. By me anyway.

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Sonder is ‘the realisation 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’.

Briefly but less poetically, sonder is the realisation that everyone has a story.

The dictionary also has words particularly suited to our Starts at Sixty community: anemoia, nostalgia for a time you’ve never known, and avenoir, the desire that memory could flow backwards.

Then there’s onism, the awareness of how little of the world you’ll experience. I’ve been to lots of places but I certainly experience onism these days.

I think my favourite so far is nodus tollens: the realisation that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore—that although you thought you were following your own story, you keep finding yourself immersed in passages you don’t understand.

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Who doesn’t feel like that from time to time? As we age, don’t we all realise that sometimes our own lives are a puzzle, but all the same our stories are unique, but also that they could have gone differently?


Have you come across odd words that most people don’t know?