Know Your Words · Loner's Dictionary · LRL Achive

I’m Back … and “Lonely”

“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
– Henry David Thoreau

Walden
Thoreau: alone, but not lonely

The mother-in-law-related interference I mentioned in my previous post has run it’s course and I’m back at it. However, if there was an up-side to being away for that week or so, it was that being away from this blog gave me a little time to think about my reference library, this blog, how they fit in to my present state of affairs and what I want to accomplish.

The result of all that thinking was a subtle name change — what was once the Anachronist Reference Library has now become the Lonely Reference Library. It was the right move, and not only because the word “anachronism” doesn’t exactly mesh with blogging. The other reason behind the name change is that I spend an awful lot of time by myself, which I suppose makes me something of a loner, but not necessarily lonely, which has a rather somber ring to it. Be that as it may, the “Loner Reference Library” didn’t sound quite right, so I went with “lonely.”

It is in that spirit, that I thought I’d start this new era by examining the word lonely in my customary way. To the dictionaries!

To my surprise, the Oxford English Dictionary defines lonely in more ways than I anticipated.

1. (Of persons, their actions, conditions, etc.) Having no companionship or society; unaccompanied, solitary, lone
2. (Poetical) Of things: Isolated, standing apart; lone
3. (Of localities) Unfrequented by men; desolate
4. Dejected because of want of company or society; sad at the thought that one is alone; having a feeling of solitariness b.) (poetical) Imparting a feeling of loneliness; dreary.

Obviously, when speaking of things or place, there is little question as to what lonely means. Things get a little more complicated, thought, when you apply it to humans. Thus, to see if a little more knowledge might light my way, I reached deep into the LRL’s stacks and checked some other dictionaries.

To my surprise, they did. The Webster’s School and Office Dictionary from 1914 included the word “retired” with its definition and the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language offered the curious phrase “longing for friends,” which is something quite different from “want of company or society.”

Clearly, when describing people, the aforementioned sources deem alone and lonely to be synonymous, but are they? A self-professed loner (like me) might object, saying that when he or she spends time alone (i.e., unaccompanied), he or she is not necessarily lonely ( i.e., “longing for friends” or feeling “dejected because of want of company or society”).

To further complicate matters, I typically feel loneliest (in the sad, dejected use of the term), when I’m standing in a room full of people I don’t know and don’t feel up to the small talk (why yes, I am an introvert). In these instances, I don’t suffer from a “want of society,” but rather a want of escape.

Oddly enough, this co-mingling of alone and lonely may have an etymological justification, at least according to the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins, which says “Lonely is a derivative of lone, itself a truncated form of alone.” Even more interesting is that, as the text goes on to say, the term alone is “simply a compound of all and one” and that, in Old English, it was a completely separate phrase, all ana, literally, “completed by oneself.” I don’t know about you, but that has a rather positive ring to it. So much for feelings of dejection.

Most surprising of all, perhaps, is that the most nuanced assessment of loneliness in my library comes not from Oxford or Websters, but (Cheung’s) Dream Dictionary from A to Z:

Dreams about being alone often refer to the solitary life you might be leading, but they can also refer to those time when you need to strike out in a new direction, separating yourself from your friends and family in a non-social context. To dream that you are alone in a crowd may imply that you are isolated from those around you, while being alone in a landscape may suggest that you prefer to make decisions by yourself. A dream of being an astronaut on a solitary space walk may refer to deep feelings of being alone or going it alone. If you dreamed you were alone in a garden or in the countryside, a more tolerable — even pleasurable — form of solitude may be being referred to. Finding  yourself alone as a child is a powerful image of loneliness, emotional vulnerability, and feeling lost.

So are alone and lonely  synonymous? Not when they’re applied to human beings, for as noted above, one can be alone but not lonely, or conversely, lonely while standing in room full of people. Or to put it another way, while being alone and feeling alone mean different things in different contexts, those who are lonely and feel lonely are experiencing the same thing–a want for companionship–regardless of other factors.

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