Lonesome. Lonely. What’s the difference?

My Aussie and British friends say there’s no difference. If you’re lonesome then, by default, you’re lonely. I disagree.  I’ve not once been lonely since I arrived in Bali early in 2012. I do, however, from time to time miss my daughters and other family members back in the USA. A wave of lonesome washes over me. Then Ketut appears, or Wayan, or Nina, or any of a vast assortment of Balinese and expat friends and the moment passes.

It hasn’t always been like this. I know how lonely feels and for years I avoided being alone even though some of the loneliest times of my life were with mismatched others.

In this communal culture I have to work hard to be lonely, or even to be alone. Today is Kuningan, the end of the twice yearly, ten day celebration dedicated to ancestral spirits. At 9:00 a.m. Ketut appears in his sarong with food offerings. Bananas, snakefruit, peanuts, various kinds of Balinese home-made sweet treats, rice, a sugary milk drink in a small bottle, are heaped on a palm leaf plate and placed on my kitchen cooktop for those spirits.




P1110084 He lights incense and prays for the blessings of the ancestors, abundance, safety, good health, long life.

Two round bamboo talismans secured to my terrace will ward off negative spirit energy. For the prior nine days these symbols have been rectangular in shape. Today they’re replaced by round ones, a significant difference indicating completion, fulfillment, and the circular nature of life.

Prayers and offerings complete, we chat briefly and Ketut leaves.

Fifteen minutes later he’s back with a morning treat. One item on the plate is a mysterious concoction of chocolate, rice flour, palm sugar, banana, all mashed together, wrapped in a palm leaf, and formed into a Balinese tootsie-roll! Yum!

I’m snacking when Ketut pops in again…

That’s what I mean. With these pop-ins there’s always laughter. Either I’m trying to convince the hard-headed Leo of something that he’s dead-set against, smiling at me as he disagrees, or he’s cracking a joke.

A neighbor stops by in full Kuningan regalia, sarong, kebaya, Mona Lisa, for a quick hello. About that time my phone sings the message jingle and another neighbor wants to come for an afternoon chat. Every day is some variation on this theme.

Of course the sheer number of interactions per day doesn’t guarantee anything. But that isn’t the question posed here.

So tell me please, who’s right? Is there a distinct difference between lonesome and lonely, or is it just one of those cultural misunderstandings that American English has with the Queen’s English and we’re both right in our own obstinate ways?

15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Diane Struble
    Feb 20, 2016 @ 04:40:45

    You may have a point based on the definitions of each word in Webster’s. Lonely is solitary or isolated or (2) unhappy at being alone whereas lonesome is having or causing a lonely feeling or (2) unfrequented. So, although both are adjectives, it seems like lonely is the fact of isolation with accompanying unhappiness whereas lonesome is the feeling of being lonely which can be possible whether actually alone or not. All this may be slicing the hair too finely, but if you find it satifying, go with it.



  2. Lottie Nevin
    Feb 20, 2016 @ 06:24:23

    I think there’s a difference between lonely and lonesome. For me, loneliness is a feeling of isolation, a sense of despair perhaps and the feeling of being very much on ones own either literally or, amongst others. Lonesome I would describe as something that one has a choice about – you either choose to be ‘on your lonesome’ or if you get fed up with it, you can pick up the phone, or go round and see a friend etc. I think loneliness is more pernicious.



  3. sageblessings
    Feb 20, 2016 @ 09:18:01

    Big difference, I think. Lonely usually means I’m temporarily missing someone while loneliness means I’m not content or happy to be in solitude. I love solitude yet appreciate the blessings of interruptions when they occur. I love seeing the photos of Ketut. Please give him my greetings and tell him I wish I could drop in and say hi.



  4. Susan Wiste
    Feb 21, 2016 @ 11:02:46

    I believe, like you, that there is an immensity of difference between lonely and lonesome.



    • writingforselfdiscovery
      Feb 21, 2016 @ 19:21:17

      I know, Susan. When I’m challenged vehemently on something like this, it’s as though my perception of reality takes a direct hit, and even though I know that what I’m saying is true for me, it’s a momentary shock to see that it isn’t necessarily true for everyone.



  5. writingforselfdiscovery
    Feb 21, 2016 @ 19:22:18

    Take your time with that one, Sharon! Enjoy Mexico but don’t forget your friends in Bali!!!



  6. Chara
    Feb 27, 2016 @ 00:34:06

    Hi ya Sherry
    Welcome back!
    I enjoyed reading this. Thank you.
    As an English born Aussie the word ‘lonesome” doesn’t resonate for me. My distinction would be between alone and lonely where the difference feels more obvious……. to me :). Xx.



    • writingforselfdiscovery
      Feb 27, 2016 @ 01:00:22

      So interesting! The cultural differences in our shared language intrigue me no end! Alone, for me, is neither lonely nor lonesome. It’s just being by myself. Lonely is the worst, feeling isolated, disconnected, sad. Lonesome is different again, a momentary missing of another person or place. However, if the person or place continues to be missed loneliness may settle in. Or if a person doesn’t want to be alone but is continually alone and is miserable, loneliness becomes an issue to. Is that totally not how Australians understand those words?



  7. Chara
    Feb 27, 2016 @ 05:53:45

    Yes I agree with your meaning for alone and lonely. I have never used the word lonesome but can see it is an interesting addition to this duo as it expresses a different feeling again that the other two don’t include. Or could it just be a different shade of lonely? Thank you for drawing this distinction Sherry.



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