There are many reasons to feel despair with the state of the world today. Isolationist politics are rising on both sides of the Atlantic, and seizing on voters’ frustrations. The last year has seen Europe’s refugee crisis hit record levels, and a stream of police killings in the United States. In a matter of weeks, America may elect a president who has boasted of sexually assaulting women.
The German language, which is filled with wonderful words, has the perfect term to summarize this melancholic feeling: weltschmerz, which translates to “world weariness” or “world pain” (welt meaning world, schmerz meaning pain).
The phrase has its roots in the 1830s. It was first coined by German writer Jean Paul, who used it to describe Lord Byron’s discontent in the novel Selina, and it signifies a sadness about life. “Weltschmerz is the sense both that one is personally inadequate and that one’s personal inadequacy reflects the inadequacy of the world generally,” says Joachim Whaley, a professor of German history and thought at the University of Cambridge. “It is pain suffered simultaneously both in the world and at the state of the world, with the sense that the two are linked.”
As explained by the Encyclopedia Britannica, the expression sought to define “the prevailing mood of melancholy and pessimism associated with the poets of the Romantic era that arose from their refusal or inability to adjust to those realities of the world that they saw as destructive of their right to subjectivity and personal freedom—a phenomenon thought to typify Romanticism.”
For 19th-century German writers, weltschmerz was an abnormal sensitivity to the evils and ills of the world and the misery of existence. As Wilhelm Alfred Braun wrote in Types of Weltschmerz in German Poetry:
Weltschmerz is essentially a symptom of a period of conflict, of transition. The powerful reaction which marks the 18th century—a reaction against all traditional intellectual authority, and a struggle for the emancipation of the individual—reached its high-water mark in Germany in the seventies.
By the second half of the 19th century, the concept evolved from being a more personal feeling to one that reflected a broader zeitgeist, explains Syracuse University philosophy professor Frederick C. Beiser in Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900. By the 1870s and until the First World War, Beiser writes, pessimism had become a more accepted worldview in Germany, with philosophers disputing the value and meaning of life.
It’s a phrase that has stood the test of time. According to Google Books’ Ngram viewer, which charts the usage of words and phrases in books over time, weltschmerz’s usage in English texts spiked after two world wars, and then again in the 1970s. Whaley points to “the 1968 student protests, the Baader-Meinhof terrorist attacks and the economic problems of the early 1970s,” which, he says, triggered anxiety and frustration that “were in some ways comparable” to the post-war despair.
In German texts, there was a spike in mentions of weltschmerz in the 1980s. The Berlin Wall would not fall until 1989, and East and West were facing off across the border dividing Germany. The AIDS epidemic was starting to spread in the country, people feared acid rain, and they worried about the widespread death of the forests. In 1980, a right-wing extremist attack during Oktoberfest killed 12 and injured hundreds. All in all, it was a decade that introduced major health, security and environmental worries.
There was another spike in mentions in the 1990s, coinciding with the economic realities (including a tax hike for everyone) of reuniting East and West Germany. In the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, Germany was often called “the sick man of Europe.”
The phrase has endured because “no one has yet come up with a better way of expressing the pain and sorrow that it conveys,” Whaley says. Angst is a cousin of weltschmerz, but is more limited to describing personal anxiety, fear, or apprehension, rather than a broad sense of anguish at the state of the world. Ennui may sound like a colleague of weltschmerz, but the 18th century word is much more aligned with listlessness, dissatisfaction and lack of excitement, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.