Nostalgia has an air of total irreconcilability. There is the feeling the word describes, of course: a fundamentally impossible yearning, a longing to go back even as we are driven ceaselessly forward, pushed further away from our desire even as we sit contemplating it. But it’s the actual feeling, too, that ceaselessly resists any attempt to give it shape or sense. If we say we feel nostalgic, in general or about something in particular, it rarely needs an explanation, and there likely isn’t a good one anyway: Why should it be the smell of our grandmother’s cookies or the feel of a particular sweater or the sight of a certain tree in a certain playground, and not something else, that sends us searching backward? Why is it welling up now, on an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday? Why haven’t I felt this way for a long time? Why does it matter? And that assumes it even occurs to us to interrogate this sudden rush: one of nostalgia’s more persistent qualities is its ability to elide reason, to be felt deeply without prompting any further inquiry.
It’s this strange aura of elusive profundity that makes nostalgia seem less like some sort of modern condition and more like a universal feeling that took us some time to put our finger on. If feelings in general are internal experiences that demand expression whether or not we have the means for it, our inability to actually do anything with nostalgia might be what kept it ineffable for so long. Most kinds of longing can be settled in one way or another, if not necessarily to the satisfaction of the yearner. Nostalgia can only be lived in or abandoned: it is yearning distilled to its essence, yearning not really for its own sake but because there is nothing else to be done. Maybe it resisted definition for so long because naming it doesn’t help resolve anything anyway.
Appropriately for the elusiveness of the concept, the word nostalgia did not originally mean what we now consider it to—also appropriately, it was coined with a longing for a time when there was no word for what it described. In 1688, a Swiss medical student named Johannes Hofer gave the name nostalgia to a malady he had noticed in young Swiss people who had been sent abroad—chiefly mercenaries, one of Switzerland’s prime exports at the time, though also household servants and others who found themselves in “foreign regions.” As was the style at the time in the nascent field of “medicine more complicated than bleeding humours,” Hofer used a portmanteau from an indistinctly highfalutin form of Ancient Greek: nostos roughly means “home”—although it more often means “homecoming,” which incidentally was also the name for an entire subcategory of Greek literature, most notably the Odyssey—while algos means, more simply, “pain,” derived from Algea, the personifications of sorrow and grief, and a common classification at the time, attached to a variety of maladies that have since gotten either more precise or more vernacular names. (If you ever want to stoke excessive sympathy from, say, your boss, tell them you have cephalgia or myalgia—a headache or sore muscles, respectively.)
So nostalgia literally means “pain associated with home”—or, in slightly more familiar terms, “homesickness.” This is not a coincidence, but more relevantly, it’s also not a case of fancy medical-speak being dumbed down for popular consumption. At least not generally: the English word homesickness is a more or less direct translation of nostalgia. But the original term is French, maladie du pays, and not [ … ]