Nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

PETER DE VRIES (1910-93)


Homesickness: Nostalgia as a disease

Nostalgia originally had nothing to do with thinking fondly about the past, but was a recognized illness which today we would call ‘homesickness’ (from the Greek nóstos, (returning home), álgos, (pain or ache). It was first described in 1688 and was still being cited in this sense as late as 1910. It was also known as mal du Suisse, the Swiss Illness, because it was common amongst Swiss mercenaries fighting abroad. The condition was taken very seriously.
Swiss mercenaries were forbidden to sing folk tunes (Kuhreihen) because they were thought to trigger attacks of nostalgia which might lead to desertions, illness or death. The bagpipes had the same reputation amongst Scots mercenaries and Unionist army bands were forbidden to play the tune ‘Home Sweet Home’ in case it brought it on an attack.

During the American Civil War, more than 5,000 men were diagnosed with nostalgia, and 74 allegedly died from it. Soldiers diagnosed with it were often sent home.

Nostalgia Cases

The first recorded case of homesickness occurs in Homer’s Odyssey (Book X) when Odysseus tells his crew that Circe will not let them travel home immediately:
‘The men were broken-hearted as they heard me, and threw themselves on the ground groaning and tearing their hair, but they did not mend matters by crying.’
A case is recorded in England in 1787 by Robert Hamilton, who was treating a soldier fast pining away from a mystery illness in the barracks hospital. When he promised to let the man go home for six weeks he made a sudden and complete recovery.
‘He asked me, with earnestness, if I would let him go home. I pointed out to him how unfit he was, from his weakness to undertake such a journey [he was a Welchman] till once he was better; but promised him, assuredly, without farther hesitation, that as soon as he was able he should have six weeks to go home. He revived at the very thought of it . . . His appetite soon mended; and I saw in less than a week, evident signs of recovery.’


Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days.


Coping strategies for homesickness include:

• Keeping a positive attitude.

• Maintaining contact with home, through letters (both traditional and electronic).

• Activity.

• Enjoying what's different about the novel environment.

• Bringing a ‘transitional object’ (something special from home – a teddy bear, perhaps).

Adopted into English from German, the word heimweh is a rather nice alternative to the word homesickness.

The first known use of the word homesick calls it an illness to which the population of Berne was particularly susceptible.

Fond Reminiscence

By the mid-19th century nostalgia was no longer seen as a disease in itself but as a symptom of melancholia. The transfer of meaning from ‘homesickness’ to ‘fond reminiscence’ is not recorded until 1920, although the concept was noted as early as 1798, when Immanuel Kant noted that people who did return home were usually disappointed because, in fact, they did not want to return to a place, but to a time, of youth. Hence nostalgia came to mean a yearning not for a place but a time – the past.

However, since all of history is potentially a source of tradition, identifying any given period of time as ‘The Traditional’, and therefore deserving of our nostalgia, is arbitrary. Medieval historians, for example, were nostalgic for the values of the Roman republic, whilst the Romans who actually inhabited that republic were nostalgic for the frugality of their peasant antecedents.

The OED defines nostalgia as 'Sentimental longing for a period of the past'.

FRANK ZAPPA (1940-93)

It isn't necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice. There are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.

Explanatory Notes

In 2009, Wired magazine made up a list of things that, in a few years’ time, will need explanatory notes. It included:  typewriters, slide rules, rotary dial televisions with no remote control, high-speed dubbing, scanning the radio dial and hearing static between stations, using a road atlas to get from A to B, shopping only during the day Monday to Saturday, putting film in your camera and sending that film away to be processed, pay phones, half day closing, remembering someone’s phone number, finding books in a card catalogue at the library, having to manually unlock a car door and writing a cheque.

L. P. HARTLEY (1895-1972)

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

Cured by Burial

Not everyone was sympathetic to soldiers suffering with nostalgia American military doctor Theodore Calhoun argued it could be cured by war, or that a sufferer ‘can often be laughed out of it by his comrades.’

After one Russian general in Germany in 1733 warned his troops that the first man to come down with nostalgia would be buried alive, cases plummeted.

The English were held to be immune, owing to their generally superior mental condition. 

A team of researchers in southern China have even noticed that nostalgic feelings are more common in colder weather.

Anticipatory Nostalgia

You can deliberately build nostalgic memories by behaving unusually. Scientists call this ‘anticipatory nostalgia’ – if you do something wild, then you’re likely to remember it and look back fondly. 

Studies suggest that one way to beat insomnia is to listen to old cds.

Causes of Nostalgia

Suspected causes of nostalgia included unfulfilled ambition, poor hygiene, coming from farming stock, and masturbation. Also constipation, heart problems, fever and not laughing at jokes that are funny. 

Doctors believed that, if untreated, it would destroy the internal organs.

These days it’s believed many other medical conditions like malnutrition or fever were lumped under the nostalgia banner. Eventually, nostalgia came to be seen as a symptom of melancholy, and was declassified as a disease by the Royal College of Physicians in 1899. 

Arabic Proverb

When the times you complain of are gone, you will weep for them.

People are 39% more likely to buy a brand of car if their parents bought that brand of car.