BITTERSWEET SYMPHONY

Nostalgia’s unexpected etymology explains why it can feel so painful

Many linguists believe the words we speak have an influence on our thoughts and feelings. Each language contains terms with no direct equivalent that give us a glimpse into the intimate elements of a culture’s distinct character. Every time a new word is created, it reflects a society’s need for that word; it fills a previously inarticulable void with a neologism that encapsulates a unique feeling, object, action—or malady.

For example, in the late 1600s, Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer noticed a pattern in his patients who were living far from home. Those who were obsessed with returning to their estranged locations became physically, sometimes fatally, sick. To reflect this phenomena, he coined the medical term “nostalgia” in 1688, which he created by combining the Greek words nostos (homecoming) and alga (pain).

The disease’s reported symptoms included loss of appetite, fainting, heightened suicide risk, and, according to Swiss doctor Albert Van Holler, hallucinations of the people and places you miss. (Curiously, cases also spiked in the fall.) It ran so rampant among Swiss mercenaries fighting far-flung wars that playing “Khue-Reyen”—an old Swiss milking song that seemed to send soldiers into a contagiously nostalgic frenzy—was punishable by death.

While sending the afflicted home was recognized as the best cure for nostalgia, scaring it out of them was also a popular treatment plan. In 1790, French doctor Jourdan Le Cointe administered the strategy of “inciting pain and terror” by threatening the sick with a jab from a “red-hot poker.” If that wasn’t bad enough, one Russian general reportedly preferred nipping outbreaks in the bud by burying the first to succumb alive.

 It was only in the 19th century that doctors finally stopped seeking a literal “nostalgia bone.”  It was only in the 19th century that doctors finally stopped seeking a literal “nostalgia bone” responsible for homesickness and abandoned using leeches to try and suck the melancholy right out of people. Doctors agreed that Hofer was wrong, and the word “nostalgia” was no longer deemed a medical diagnosis.

The word then entered the second life we know it for now: an emotional state characterized by a wistful affection for the past. It is now the purview of romantic poets, philosophers, and artists, not war-addled soldiers. But while nostalgia shed its medical connotation centuries ago, its current definition never quite evolved to suit the nuances of its poetic second act. After all, that ineffable feeling of nostalgia extends beyond an affectation for bygone times. Nostalgia can manifest in a variety of ways, but unlike emotions like happiness, which have a spectrum of English words to express their variances, nostalgia lacks nuanced synonyms for its various types.

For instance, what about the strange homesickness you feel for a place you’ve never actually been, like an island pictured in a magazine or your great-grandparents’ long-gone summer home you’ve only seen in black-and-white photographs? What about that sad wave of wistfulness that reminds you not to take the present for granted and to appreciate every day? What about that tight sensation deep in your gut when your city changes around you, or the feeling of being vaguely melancholy for no distinct reason?

English may lack words for these feelings, but other languages have their own untranslatable, ineffable versions of nostalgia.

Nostimon—Greek

The ancient Greek word nostimon is an etymological ancestor of nostalgia. It was first used in Homer’s Odyssey to reflect when Odysseus, long estranged from Troy, longs for his “day of return”—or nostimon emar. The phrase suggests an inherent Greek sense of “true belonging” to Greece; the idea that the country’s diaspora is, literally or figuratively, always hoping for an ultimate homecoming. Interestingly, nostimon no longer refers to homecoming in modern Greek: Today it’s used to describe something pleasing, be it adorable or edible, a cutie-pie child or a wedge of baklava. Nowadays, the root of the modern Greek words for all things attractive has sprung from nost.

  • Examples: “After many years traveling the world, I began to feel nostimon and knew it was time to return home, where I ultimately belonged.” [ancient]
  • “My son came home from preschool today and told me he met a little girl he wants to marry when they’re old enough—it was so nostimon.” [modern]

Saudade—Portuguese and Galician

The term saudade has been called “the untranslatable word everyone sings about” by Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo. Saudade can be read as feeling love and loneliness with equal power simultaneously; a supercharged way to miss and desire someone or something at the same time. A fixture of art, music, and literature in Brazil, Portugal, and beyond, the word is the ultimate paradox: “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.” It sits at that bittersweet border between happiness and pain that is often crossed while reflecting on the past.

  • Example: “Despite the decades that have passed, I well up with an overpowering sense of saudade when I think back on the first summer I ever fell in love.”

Sehnsucht—German

Like saudade, German’s sehnsucht conveys the complexity of yearning, but it takes the sentiment a little further. Sehnsucht suggests that the experience of ardent longing is actually more pleasurable than that desire being fulfilled. It’s much the same way that anticipating a vacation or birthday party can actually make us happier than experiencing the event firsthand. It’s a notion so inherently private and deeply personal that the one feeling it cannot express it; to even try would feel awkward and inadequate. Sehnsucht is all the more inarticulable for its application to fictional memories—the inexplicable sense that we miss something we rationally know we could not possibly actually experienced.

  • Example: “It seems silly, but something about this particular cast of light makes me long for the French Riviera circa 1923… It’s probably just sehnsucht.

Dor—Romanian

Derived from the Latin dolus, which means “to ache,” the Romanian word dor refers to a visceral pain suffered when separated from your home. Its significance to Romanian identity is entwined with the country’s history of being regularly invaded, which periodically displaced villagers. It’s also related to the nation’s agricultural dependence on shepherding, which requires individuals to regularly spend months at a time far from home, tending their flocks. Dor is not, however, an entirely melancholy sentiment. Rather, it contributes to a sense of social connectedness by drawing the feeler’s attention to cherished memories and meaningful relationships—a nourishing alienation in which past happiness can bring comfort in an unfamiliar and lonely present.

  • Example: “I used to come home every day to a snack my grandmother made me and I’d eat it watching after-school cartoons while she ironed—it was so cozy that thinking about it fills me with dor.”

Toska—Russian

Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov defines toska as a “sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause.” At its root, the feeling could be related to a desire, regret, or simply ennui, but part of its charm is its vagueness—it’s a melancholia about nothing in particular.

  • Example: “When it rains all afternoon I sometimes succumb to toska and spend hours staring out the window in a gloomy daze.”

Mono no aware—Japanese

Classical Japanese philosophy celebrates the impermanence of the world—a mindset that is meant to incentivize seizing the moment rather than our short lives being a cause of despair. The phrase mono no aware refers to the “pathos” (aware) of “things” (mono), meaning being in tune with the ineluctable transience of the world. It is the feeling of knowing that your belongings, your hometown, and the people you know will continue to exist after your death. Mono no aware is commonly evoked in relation to Japan’s traditional love of cherry blossoms, which are valued for their ephemerality—they considered so beautiful partly because they are so fleeting. In this way, it almost reflects the ability to be nostalgic while in the present—to long for things that will soon be in the past, but while they’re still here.

  • Example: “When the seasons change so quickly and the weeks all start blending together, I remind myself of mono no aware and try to be more conscious of everyday beauty.”

Read more of the Quartz Ideas series on The Nostalgia Economy.

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