Collaborate2011

New Words – Melody Nixon

In Melody Nixon, nonfiction on July 17, 2011 at 11:56 pm

The Portuguese language has the most well-known non-English word for something like nostalgia: suadade. (saw’dadi.) This word means the state of deep emotional, nostalgic longing for a person, place, or time that is no longer accessible – or, never really was. It’s scary, actually, that we have the capacity to yearn for things that have never been. 

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When it comes to complex words, the German language can’t be rivalled. Its compound ‘sehnsucht’ also describes a sensation of intense and ‘inconsolable’ longing (as C.S. Lewis described it), for something that can’t be identified. But unlike suadade, sehnsucht is a feeling of yearning that has no clear object. Literally sehnsucht is a compound of sehnen, which roughly translates to deep longing or yearning, and sucht, which translates to compulsion or addiction. Lewis wrote this passage about sehnsucht in The Pilgrim’s Regress:

That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of “Kubla Khan,” the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.

Lewis was convinced that the triggers for sehnsucht are different for everyone; but what is striking about his passage above is that many of his descriptions are strongly evocative of childhood – the smell of bonfires (holidays), waves on the shore (summer holidays), ducks flying overhead (autumn), the opening lines of a poem (evenings, being read to). They recall moments spent outdoors, nature, comfort, family, home, free-time. It’s easy to imagine adults yearning to regain those sorts of general pleasures. Sehnsucht for childhood.

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We all know about homesickness (in German – Heimweh). But who has heard of far-sickness?  The German language also has a term for the intense, fervent desire to be far away – ‘Fernweh.’ It’s typically associated with the more romantic idea of wanderlust and a need for travel and adventure, rather than running away. But it is still, like the home variety, a sickness.

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Like nostalgia used to be. This term has positive connotations as well as painful ones ~ feelings of joy can be associated with the remembering of times past, of childhood, of the belle epoch. But nostalgia can also be detrimental to one’s health. The term was originally coined to explain advanced cases of the illness of ‘homesickness,’ or ‘mal du pays,’ which were first documented among 17th century soldiers. Their health rapidly deteriorated, they couldn’t fight, and they talked incessantly of their country or village. The treatment? A doctor-prescribed promise to return home.

Imagine: the breadth, history, and power of feelings associated with home. Then imagine the loss of home.

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Beyond clothing, a person invests bits of [their] emotional life in [their] home, and beyond the home in the neighborhood. To be forcibly evicted from one’s home and neighborhood is to be stripped of a sheathing, which in its familiarity protects the human being from the bewilderments of the outside world.
— Tuan (1974)

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  1. i love this! have always felt a fondness for saudade, so adore bossa nova.

    i teach this essay by marianne hirsch and leo spitzer called ‘we would not have come without you.’ it’s about nostalgia passed down to the next generation, who then experience ‘rootless nostalgia’ for a home they’ve never really known but have heard about through their parents. i think you might like it.

  2. love love love this post

  3. Thanks Ruby, Podrushka…. I’d love to see that essay. The thought of an undefined “rootless” nostalgia is haunting, but somehow soothing too…

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