As you probably remember, when we tracked down the German loan word Wanderlust – the desire to travel and experience the world; we have reached to the conclusion that sooner or later all travellers come to experience another loan word of German origin – Heimweh (heim (home) and weh (woe)). And some of our long-term readers, might also remember that while following the way of the word nostalgia, we found out that the feeling of homesickness was firstly used in Switzerland in 1688 by Johannes Hofer in De Nostalgia oder Heimwehe (Nostalgia or Homesickness). The young medical student had to find a classic term to describe the way Swiss mercenary soldiers, involved in foreign armed conflicts, were affected by missing home, a state often leading to desertion or even developing a physical illness. And the first time the German loan word appeared in print in the English language came to describe exactly the Swiss soldiers homesickness. In 1721, Matthew Prior, stated his opinion in the Dialogues of Dead that: “The Swiss are remarked to have a distemper, which they call the Hemweh, a desire of going home, and where ever they are in service they get leave to return to their Canton at least once in some years, and certainly desire to die there.”
Yes, heimweh is a synonym for nostalgia, but while the latter might have a wide general colloquial meaning of for example – recalling happy memories from the old times with a bitter taste of the inevitable and a sentiment; the former usually strictly describes the phenomenon of homesickness along with all the effects a separation from home and our relatives and close friends has on us.
Originally it always meant the Swiss, but the distress was later found to mainly affect people who were born in the mountains. Though it looks that British people were not affected – whether due to their fairly settled life or other factors, as in 1860s, in His Letters and Memories of His Life, Charles Kingsley described himself as: “perhaps the only Englishman ..who has continually the true homesickness “heimweh”, of the Swiss and Highlanders.”
During the same time, American soldiers were falling victims of homesickness, only during the first two years of the American Civil War, 2588 cases of heimweh were reported with 13 deaths.
In the 19th century, the term finally appeared in medical literature to characterise the phenomenon of inappropriate and excessive fear or anxiety concerning separation from those to whom the individual is attached.
Nowadays, thanks to the technological boom, regardless of how far we go, we have all the technological means at disposal to help us connect to our relatives and friends and to easily create new social connections, which both factors help to significantly lower the effects of heimweh. But nevertheless, the tendency of expats longing for home and planning sooner or later to return back to their home land is still stronger compared to their longing for far-off places, described by another German word – fernweh (farsickness).