What is ‘weltschmerz’?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: weltschmerz…

Eleanor Oliphant — great name, isn’t it? — was my favourite literary character in 2017 and her book Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, gave me so much pleasure. It also gave me my word of the week, weltschmerz.

Here is how Honeyman used it:

My travel pass had expired, and it was symptomatic of my general feeling of weltschmerz, of anomie, that I hadn’t even bothered to renew it last week.

I knew, from glancing at the word, that it was German. I love German words. I can recall being particularly pleased that my son, at the age of 13, was able to use, correctly, the word schadenfreude. (It means joy in the pain of others. My son had picked it up from an episode of The Simpson’s.)

Weltschmerz, means world-weariness, a term coined in 1810 by writer Jean Paul Richter. In many ways, it is the German version of ennui. It comes from the German welt, meaning “world” and schmerz meaning “pain.” In German philosophy, it was distinguished from pessimism (the idea that there is more bad than good in the world)  because pessimism is an intellectual response whereas weltschmerz is an emotional one.

Though ennui and weltschmerz are close synonyms, the former suggests boredom while the latter hints at pain, sadness or longing.  I must say, I love the specificity of German words.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Jan. 3/18.

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