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Thursday, August 18, 2016

It ain't what it used to be


"Hey, Mildred! Remember the good old days?"
As is often the way with political campaigns, those we have endured in 2016 have promised voters a return to a supposed previous idyllic state. Yes, where would politicians be without ... nostalgia?

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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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.