Q&A: “Nostalgia” – wistful yearning or deadly illness

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, those were the days…

Q: Hi AWC, I’ve been reflecting a lot lately about how things used to be.

A: Well, be careful you don’t die from “nostalgia” then!

Q: What a weird thing to say. Why would someone die from wistfully reminiscing on the past?

A: Oh, haven’t you heard?

Q: Heard what?

A: The word “nostalgia” started off far more deadly than it is today.

Q: Tell me more!

A: Gladly. The idea of extreme homesickness was first proposed in 1688 by a Swiss chap named Johannes Hofer. He called it “heimweh” – German for “home woe”.

Q: When did it enter English?

A: By 1729, the term “nostalgia” had been translated from “heimweh” via a Modern Latin take on the Greek words for homecoming (nostos) and pain or grief (algos). It was classed in medical journals of the day as an actual disease.

Q: Really? An ACTUAL disease?

A: Absolutely. Initially it was thought to be specific to the Swiss and related to altitude. Upon returning to the mountains of Switzerland from lands closer to sea level, this “nostalgia” would mess with their equilibrium – making circulation difficult due to the air being thinner.

Q: I guess it must be hard when you’re so used to being neutral.

A: Indeed.

Q: So clearly this altitude sickness definition didn’t catch on?

A: No. But instead, by the 1800s, the term had expanded to account for ANY kind of severe homesickness – often seen in sailors, convicts or even slaves. In 1833, it was listed as an endemic disease in the Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine.

Q: How was the disease defined?

A: “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 the scenes of their youth.”

Q: Okay sure, but you’d hardly be able to DIE of being homesick, right?

A: You have to remember that this was a time when deaths were attributed to all sorts of things, masking the actual cause. During the American Civil War in the 1860s, more than 2500 cases of nostalgia were reported in the first two years – and 13 deaths from it.

Q: Wow.

A: It seems that homesickness was an actual sickness.

Q: It certainly was. But, when did it…well, stop killing people?

A: Good question. It was probably a combination of better medical understandings along with French literature hijacking the concept of “nostalgie” in a more romantic sense. According to Etymology Online, by 1920, its meaning had become less lethal and more like today’s “wistful yearning of the past” vibe.

Q: So it went from being a separation of place to one of TIME?

A: Exactly. Today, to suffer from nostalgia CAN still mean longing for a place, but we’re more likely simply to use “homesick”. The more common, more positive meaning is to reminisce about an earlier time or condition that cannot be recovered.

Q: “The good ol’ days…”

A: Exactly!

Q: A condition without a cure – unless you have a time machine.

A: That’s true. It can be triggered by all sorts of things like smells, places, music and even the weather. Advertising also uses our idealised view of the past to sell us things, as do political campaigns wanting to make things great again.

Q: Too soon…

A: Anyway, so while doctors no longer treat nostalgia as a medical condition, it continues to intrigue researchers – particularly in studies on memory.

Q: That reminds me of a joke. Why is nostalgia a lot like grammar?

A: No idea. Why?

Q: Because we find the present tense and the past perfect!

A: Groan…


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