By definition, “nostalgia” is “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” But for anyone who has gotten lost in thought thinking about the “good, old days,” or spent an afternoon binge-watching a TV show from their youth, or who has a Pinterest board for that second honeymoon trip, nostalgia is more than can be put into words — at least English words, perhaps.
“Nostalgia” was coined in 1688 at the University of Basel in a dissertation written by Johannes Hofer. He was trying to render the German heimweh, meaning “homesickness,” and explain the symptoms displayed by Swiss mercenaries in the service of European monarchs. These symptoms included obsessive thinking of home, weeping, anxiety, palpitations, loss of appetite, and insomnia.
The etymology is traced to the Greek nostos, meaning “homecoming,” and algos, meaning “pain, grief, distress.” By the early 19th century, “nostalgia” was used as a medical diagnosis for intense homesickness, and eventually it was listed as an “endemic disease” in the 1833 Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine: “The concourse of depressing symptoms which sometimes arise in persons who are absent from their native country, when they are seized with a longing desire of returning to their home and friends and scenes [of] their youth…” It was considered a serious medical problem and common military diagnosis in the American Civil War. However, by the early 20th century, it had lost its sense as a medical diagnosis, and began to mean more generally “wistful yearning for the past,” as opposed to yearning for one’s homeland.
“Nostalgia” has developed to be linked to sense memory and personal emotions — you are much more likely to feel nostalgic when considering a memory involving a friend, relative, or loved one. An fMRI brain scan study in 2016 found that when the feeling of nostalgia is triggered, it activates the parts of the brain that rule memory and reward systems. Participants were stimulated with sight and sound, as well as smell, which Sigmund Freud described as “hardwired to emotion.”
With all this research and focus on the experience of nostalgia, there’s still something lacking with the word. Other languages have words that describe specific nuances and aspects of different types of nostalgia — and perhaps that’s what Johannes Hofer was attempting with his interpretation of the German heimweh.
This Portuguese word describes a bittersweet, empty feeling of longing for something or someone you love that is now gone. More specifically, saudade is the “love that remains” after someone leaves. Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo described it as the “untranslatable word everyone sings about.”
We get hiraeth from the Welsh, who use it to refer to homesickness, combined with melancholy for the lost or departed. More specifically, it denotes a longing for one’s homeland.
This German word conveys longing much like the Portuguese saudade, but it also suggests that such yearning is more pleasurable than actually receiving the thing or person we yearn for. Sehnsucht can also be applied to fictional memories, when one misses something or someone they never actually had or experienced.
This Romanian word is derived from the Latin dolus, meaning “to ache.” Dor is fraught with meaning given Romania’s history of being invaded, which left many of its people displaced. It describes the pain of being separated from one’s homeland. It’s important to note that the sentiment isn’t entirely negative – dor has an additional positive connotation, one that comes from a sense of social connectedness with others feeling the same way. It implies that past happiness can comfort you in an unfamiliar present.
Mono no aware
This is the Western phonetic spelling of a Japanese expression that translates directly to “the pathos of things” or “the empathy of things.” It describes the feeling of knowing that your home, loved ones, and belongings will continue to exist after your death. It’s almost a nostalgia one feels in the present, knowing that things will eventually be in the past.
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