|"Hey, Mildred! Remember the good old days?"|
The surprising thing about the word "nostalgia", however, is that its current meaning, "A sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past" is really quite recent. Here is the earliest example the OED could find:
1900 Amer. Jrnl. Sociol. 5 606 It is reason and convenience that lure him [sc. man] from the time-hallowed; it is nostalgia that draws him back.Before then, nostalgia existed, but the word designated very specifically a kind of homesickness so intense that doctors considered it to be a mental illness.
The word had been invented by an Alsatian doctor, Johannes Hofer, in 1688, to describe the particularly acute neurotic symptoms displayed by Swiss mercenaries longing for home. Often the clinking of a cowbell would set them off. But it was not just a hankering for their daily Toblerone bar; they suffered the usual shell shock symptoms of lack of concentration, palpitations, depression, and loss of appetite, with some of them starving themselves to death. In German, the word for this "home pain" was Heimweh, which Hofer translated into Modern Latin using the Greek elements nostos (return home) and algia (pain).
Surprisingly, the very word "homesick" did not enter English till fifty years later, in the mid-1700s, once again as a translation from the German Heimweh. It is odd to think we did not have a word for this concept before then.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, acute homesickness was considered very seriously by the medical establishment, and "nostalgia" had this specifically medical meaning. More than 5,000 cases of nostalgia were diagnosed during the American Civil War. Gradually, however, it ceased to be used in medicine, and its current sense took off.
Considering the foaming-at-the-mouth rhetoric of some politicians determined to make us believe that everything was better in the past, perhaps it is time to treat nostalgia once again as a pathological condition.
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