Today, homesickness is a somewhat infantile emotional state that we associate with children at summer camp. But less than 100 years ago, it was a far more serious condition and, as late as 1918, was sometimes listed on death certificates as a formal cause of death.
Tiffany Watt Smith, research fellow at Queen Mary University of London’s Centre for the History of Human Emotions, created an encyclopedia of 154 words from a wide range of languages and time periods that all describe how we feel in The Book of Human Emotions. One trend that emerged, she says, is a decline in the use of English emotional words that describe our relationship to the home.
Homesickness is an obvious example. “All across Europe homesickness used to be considered an extremely serious emotional sickness, so serious that it could kill you. You certainly couldn’t die of homesickness today,” Watt Smith says. Today, “it’s not given much credibility as an emotion.”
The Victorian word “inhabitiveness,” which means a desire to find a permanent home, has also fallen out of use. “We definitely don’t have inhabitiveness as a concept anymore and my feeling is it’s seen as less desirable,” says Watt Smith.
This isn’t simply coincidence, but a shift in our emotional values, she argues. The travel industry only emerged at the end of the 19th century and since then, as more people began to explore the world, the cultural significance of the home steadily declined.
“With modernity at the beginning of the 20th century, there’s a massive emphasis on travel and mobility and transformation as a cultural good and thing that should be aspired to,” she says. “If you want to see someone as ambitious then they’re someone who travels, has new experiences, and wants to change things and shake things up. That wouldn’t have been so true 100 years earlier.”
Watt Smith believes that the words we use to describe emotions reflect our values. A contemporary example is FOMO, an acronym for ”fear of missing out.” “Lots of people experience FOMO from social media and it’s talked about enough that someone created an acronym and it’s caught on,” she says. “When things are important to us—we might worry or talk about them—we’re more likely to give them a name and identify it.”
A word might become more popular because cultural conditions change to encourage that emotional state. But it works the other way, too: inventing a word for a particular emotion can spur a change in cultural conditions. “If you have access to a word, does that make it more likely that you’ll experience that emotion? There’s research to suggest that’s true,” says Watt Smith.
Anxiety, she says, is a modern phenomenon that wasn’t really used in English until the beginning of the 20th century. It originates with Freud, who wrote of “anxious neuroses,” and believed the condition afflicted young married women in particular.
In earlier times, people would have been more likely to talk of an “attack of nerves,” which was thought of as more of an external affliction—and to be less debilitating than how we see anxiety today.
“The assumption is that anxiety comes from within us,” says Watt Smith. “Whereas you might think nerves are productive, that they can give you an edge on an exam or a big deal, anxiety is rather inhibiting. In my mind it’s an emotion we’re encouraged to avoid or overcome.”
Strange to think that this wasn’t a problem those in the 15th century had to worry about. For them, anxiety simply didn’t exist.