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It turns out that the word nostalgia means homesickness. I guess some of us weren’t in class the day the teacher talked about nostalgia. Some of us thought the word referred to that feeling of pleasure, tinged with gentle melancholy, that can arise when you think of something that had been familiar and meaningful to you in the past.
As it happens, we were wrong. All of us around here were wrong. The word was composed in the 17th century to describe a malady, severe homesickness, which was first noticed in Swiss mercenaries. Those Swiss mercenaries were sent all over Europe and, no surprise, they got homesick, extremely homesick. The word incorporates two Greek words, (nóstos), meaning a return home, and (álgos), meaning pain or ache. When it comes to making new words, the obscurantist medical profession gets out the Greek and Latin dictionaries.
We looked up nostalgia in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Fifth Edition. (That’s a classic edition.) Yup, there it was. The total definition is one solitary word: homesickness. That edition was based on the famous Second Edition of Webster’s New Internatinal Dictionary which was copyrighted in 1934, so we turned to a more up-to-date volume, Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, which was copyrighted in 1989. The number 1 definition was still homesickness.
But there was also definition number 2: “a wistful or excessively sentimental sometimes abnormal yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.” Have you got that? OK, we’ve already admitted not being in class the day our teacher discussed nostalgia, but I’m sure neither Miss Hammerstone nor Miss Bundelmom would ever speak so strangely.
I don’t know if looking at some old tie-dyed T-shirts and torn blue-jeans would give you a wistful or excessively sentimental sometimes abnormal yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition. On the other hand, if you’re in Rome and visit Vatican City and you see one of the Pope’s Swiss guards looking rather sickish, you can say, Ah, nostalgia!