'Sonder:' ASU Art Students Give Meaning To Made-Up Word

By Annika Cline
Published: Friday, March 25, 2016 - 3:29pm
Updated: Sunday, March 27, 2016 - 8:59am
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(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Hitomi Baba (left) and Azalea Rodriguez will show work in an exhibit titled "Sonder."

"Sonder" is a word you maybe haven’t heard before. Don’t grab your dictionary to look it up; it’s not in there. It was made up by a man from Minnesota and is now the title of a new ASU art exhibition.

John Koenig defines the word in a YouTube video:

“Sonder,” Koenig begins in the video. “You are the main character. The protagonist, the star at the center of your own unfolding story.” 

It’s a word he made up as part of an ongoing project called The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Koenig makes up words for the parts of the human condition that we all feel but don’t have the words to describe. Sonder is the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.

“It’s a fundamental part of empathy to look out at the world and see all the lights in the city and realize that those are actual people,” Koenig said. 

Now the word Koenig, invented in 2014, is the title of an ASU exhibit.

“It really ties into our gallery theme about how we see people and how everybody has different lives, and we don’t know what they’re experiencing really,” art student Hitomi Baba said. 

Baba is one of seven art seniors who will display work in the exhibit. She said she wanted to capture snapshots of human emotion in her water colors. 

“That’s what I’m kind of aiming for is like a still shot of something that will be continuous,” Baba said.

Like that moment when you see a stranger and notice a frown on their face. 

Azalea Rodriguez will show charcoal drawings, many of them purposely including sketch lines and smudges. She said she’s using the physical form for the theme. 

“Every body is different, and I think that goes along with realizing that everybody is different,” Rodriguez said. “Even though the word is meant to be more of like a psychological-type thing, I think that it can be applied to the physical form, too.”

You could have a feeling of sonder when you’re in a crowd and realize no two bodies are alike, and each has its own scars.

Koenig said he thinks it’s great the students have found a way to interpret the definition and relate it to themselves.

“I think that’s exactly what words are for, and that’s why I’d be happy if sonder ended up becoming a real word - because it means something to people, not because it has been blessed by some linguist or included in some dictionary, including my own. That’s, I think, how words become real is if they mean something to people,” he said.

The Sonder exhibit will be at ASU’s Gallery 100 starting April 4.

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