Negative nostalgia

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For more than three decades, I have edited and published a journal called Sino-Platonic Papers.  The first issue (Feb., 1986) was "The Need for an Alphabetically Arranged General Usage Dictionary of Mandarin Chinese: A Review Article of Some Recent Dictionaries and Current Lexicographical Projects" (free pdf; 31 pages) — that led to the creation of the ABC Chinese Dictionary Series at the University of Hawaii Press.  (One important title is missing at the highlighted link:  An Alphabetical Index to the Hanyu Da Cidian [2003].)

Up to #170 (Feb. 2006), SPP was issued only in paper copies.  It was a one-man operation, with me being responsible for all of the editing, typesetting, printing, filling orders, billing, packaging, mailing, etc. all over the world.  With hundreds of subscribers in scores of countries, and all of this on top of my teaching, research, writing, and fieldwork, not to mention family life, after ten years it was really dragging me down, and after twenty years, I felt that SPP was killing me.

Then an angel wrote to me from Taiwan, "Would you like me to put all of your SPP on line?"  I could not believe my eyes when I read his e-mail.  My savior!  After confirming that he was serious, I accepted his offer, and ever since I feel like I've been in heaven.  With the addition of two associate editors, one for style and one for technical matters, we're now up to #285.  Each issue routinely has thousands of readers, some have tens of thousands, others hundreds of thousands, and already within a couple of years of going electronic, one issue had more than a million readers.

Yet there are still boxes and shelves packed with thousands of the old paper copies all over the first floor and the basement of my house, which is actually more like a SPP warehouse.  Occasionally, for whatever reason, people will write to me from Germany or Russia or Japan or Florida or somewhere else requesting one of the old paper issues.  If I still have the requested issues in stock, I dutifully package and mail them.

I mentioned this to my associate editors and they commiserated with me.  I replied:

Thanks for your full understanding of what I went through to make and distribute all those paper SPPs.  I don't mind doing it rarely now, because it brings back a feeling of negative nostalgia for those bad, old days.

To which the technical editor replied:

"Negative nostalgia" sounds like something there would be a word for in German.

Considering that German has a genius for creating weirdly apt words such as those in the list below, I thought that what my colleague said was spot on.

1. Ohrwurm (Ear worm) — very well known to Language Log readers (see "Readings" below)

Have you ever listened to a song on the radio while driving to work only to find yourself still humming the same tune by lunch time? Congratulations, you’ve had an ear worm. The beautiful German word Ohrwurm describes the fact of having a song stuck in your head as if it wriggled itself into your brain through your ear.

2. Fernweh (Distance pain)

This gem describes the feeling of wanting to be somewhere else. It’s kind of like a reverse homesickness (Heimweh in German), a longing for a place that isn’t where you are right now. Fernweh is also a frequent reason for people in Germany to go on holiday.

3. Kummerspeck (Grief bacon)

When a relationship ends or during other times of sadness, anger, or worry, it’s common to put on a few pounds of Kummerspeck. What it means is the excess weight put on by emotional overeating. So when you find yourself on the couch watching “Bridget Jones’ Diary” with a tub of ice cream, you are in fact feeding your grief bacon.

4. Innerer Schweinehund (Inner pig dog)

Can’t get up in the morning to be on time for work? Too lazy to go to the gym? Homework remains undone until the last minute? Don’t worry, it’s not your fault. The blame lies with your inner pig dog. That’s the tiny voice in the back of your head which is trying to convince you to live a life of inertia and which you will have to overcome to rid yourself of Kummerspeck.

5. Fremdschämen (Exterior shame)

For those of you who cringe in phantom pain when others make a fool of themselves, this is your word. It describes the feeling of shame when seeing someone else in an uncomfortable or embarrassing situation. It’s a real thing for the more empathetic folk and has kept more than one person from watching “the Office.”

6. Torschlusspanik (Closing-gate panic)

As people get older, some find themselves worrying about roads not taken or milestones they meant to achieve by a certain age but haven’t. Torschlusspanik is the feeling of urgency to accomplish them before some imaginary gate closes and “it’s all too late.” It’s mostly used for those who sense their biological clock is running out and feel the need to settle with a partner or have children immediately.

7. Treppenwitz (Staircase joke)

Have you ever noticed how when you have a chance encounter with an attractive person of the opposite sex or get into an argument with someone, the best jokes, lines, and comebacks always occur to you afterwards? That’s the so-called Treppenwitz. It’s the joke that comes to your mind on the way down the stairs after talking to your neighbor in the hallway two floors up.

8. Lebensmüde (Life tired)

This word literally means being tired of life and was used to describe the dramatic and soul-crushing emotional agony of young Romantic poets (see also Weltschmerz and Weichei). Nowadays Lebensmüde is what you call your friends when they are attempting something especially stupid and possibly life threatening. Most people in fail videos on YouTube suffer from latent Lebensmüdigkeit.

9. Weltschmerz (World pain)

The world isn’t perfect. More often than not it fails to live up to what we wish it was. Weltschmerz describes the pain we feel at this discrepancy. It can be one of the main drivers for Kummerspeck.

10. Weichei (Soft egg)

No, Weichei isn’t what you order in the hotel when you want a three-minute egg for breakfast. In fact the waiter might look at you slightly disconcerted for accusing him of being a wuss. A soft egg, in German, means someone who is weak and cowardly. The same is also conveyed by calling someone Würstchen, the diminutive of sausage. Apparently Germans like to name wimps after foodstuffs.

11. Backpfeifengesicht (Slap face)

Have you ever heard the joke “Some people just need a high five – in the face – with a chair?” Backpfeifengesicht kind of goes in the same direction. It describes someone who you feel needs a slap in the face. Disclaimer: we’re telling you this for informational purposes only and do not in any way condone violence.

12. Erklärungsnot (Explanation poverty)

Erklärungsnot is a state shared by cheating spouses, lying politicians, and school children without their homework alike. It’s what you find yourself in when put on the spot without a sufficient explanation or excuse for something you have done or failed to do. Most often used in the form of in Erklärungsnot geraten or in Erklärungsnot sein.

13. Sitzfleisch (Sit or seat meat)

As much as it sounds like it, Sitzfleisch isn’t a recipe of German Hausfrauen that involves tenderizing meat by placing it under your buttocks. Instead, it describes a character trait. Those who possess a lot of seat meat are able to sit through and weather something incredibly hard or boring. It’s like carrying your own personal cushion around with you.

14. Purzelbaum (Tumble tree)

This tree is so common in Germany that every child knows it. However, if you are about to take out your big German botanical dictionary, let me stop you right there. Despite the name, a Purzelbaum isn’t part of the kingdom of plants. Instead, it describes a somersault on the ground, a favorite way of children to get their clothes dirty.

15. Dreikäsehoch (Three cheeses high)

This sounds like it would make a great name for a pizza. However, what it describes is a person who is vertically challenged, implying they’re only as tall as three wheels of cheese placed on top of each other. Usually this label is reserved for small children, together with Zwerg or Pimpf.

16. Zungenbrecher (Tongue breaker)

While it sounds like a medieval torture instrument, the nature of the Zungenbrecher is much less gruesome. It is the German equivalent of tongue twister, a phrase that’s very hard to pronounce even for native speakers due to its sequence of letters. A very common one in German is Blaukraut bleibt Blaukraut und Brautkleid bleibt Brautkleid ("red cabbage will be red cabbage and a wedding dress will be a wedding dress" — or vice versa).  Yeah, practice that for a while and say it 10 times fast.

17. Schattenparker (Shadow parker)

This word is part of a series of insults for men which accuse them of unmanly behavior. In this case, of parking their car in the shadow to avoid heating up the interior. These kinds of derogatory terms were something of a meme some years back and whole lists of them exist on the internet. Alternatives include Warmduscher (someone who showers with warm water), Sitzpinkler (a man who urinates while sitting down), or Turnbeutelvergesser (someone who used to forget their gym bag in cardio class).

18. Kuddelmuddel (???)

I know, great final word right? Don’t even start guessing its English meaning. Kuddelmuddel describes an unstructured mess, chaos, or hodgepodge. Alternatives which are equally awesome include Tohuwabohu, Wirrwarr, Mischmasch, and Kladderadatsch.

Source (with a few minor revisions)

Of course, the granddaddy of all freaky German coinages is Schadenfreude (Harm joy), a word with which Language Log readers are thoroughly familiar (see below).  Is this the opposite of #5?


"TFW" (12/28/16) — with extensive discussion of "schadenfreude"

"Translating the untranslatable" (10/28/10) — again with extensive discussion of "schadenfreude"

"Embarrassing amnesia" (10/20/14) — yet again with extensive discussion of "schadenfreude"

"Fingerspitzengefühl" (5/25/10)

"Too few words to describe emotions" (2/12/19)

"Schadenfreudeful" (4/20/19)

"Verschlimmbessert" (3/13/15)

"Serious earworm infection" (7/16/17)

"Earworms and white bears" (9/1/13)

"Musical maggots" (9/5/13)

"The ultimate earworms" (9/7/13)

"Justin Bieber OK infix" (2/13/18)


  1. monscampus said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 3:23 pm

    Admittedly, *negative nostalgia* seems to be an oxymoron. In German you would just settle for negative memories/feelings –> *ungute Erinnerungen/Gefühle*. No need to coin a new German word, als nostalgia in English and Nostalgie in German are not used quite in the same way. That's why translators have to work around a bit.

  2. Aaron said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 3:56 pm

    An English phrase I've heard for #5 is "contact embarrassment" (coined, I assume, on analogy with "contact high").

  3. chris said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 3:58 pm

    "Negative nostalgia" appears in Lois McMaster Bujold's _A Civil Campaign_ (1999):

    "Mama sighed in something like negative nostalgia, not longing for the remembered past but relief at having escaped it."

    The fact that it's immediately explained implies an expectation that readers wouldn't be familiar with the phrase, but IDK if there are actually earlier examples.

    Of course I can't be sure if the person who used it to you had read Bujold or heard the expression from someone else who had; it could be an independent coinage.

  4. David Morris said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 4:04 pm

    If '-algia' means 'pain', then why is 'nostalgia' a positive thing (usually)?

  5. Victor Mair said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 4:13 pm


    I had never read Bujold, and I had never heard the expression before. It just came to my mind spontaneously.

  6. Toby said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 5:00 pm

    Treppenwitz – English (well high register English anyway) has esprit d'escalier, which is the same thing.

  7. Colin Watson said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 5:19 pm

    The Irish for Ohrwurm/earworm is the gorgeously-rhyming "éistphéist": éisteann = to listen, péist = worm, cognate with "beast". Almost better than the original.

  8. Chris C. said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 5:49 pm

    @Toby — The technical term for that particular register of English is "French".

  9. monscampus said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 6:25 pm

    @Colin Watson

    I wonder what makes the Irish term almost better? While Ohrwurm doesn't rhyme, it's also a pun, playing on the insect's actual name (called earwig in English) plus the effect a tune might have on you. Without rhyme, but hardly without reason.

  10. monscampus said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 6:32 pm

    @David Morris

    As nostalgia is meant to be *aching for home*, it's certainly an ache many displaced persons seem to wallow in. Some enjoy being lovesick, too.

  11. AG said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 8:16 pm

    Side note about nostalgia – I often wonder about how Japanese people conceive and/or discuss the concept. It's been a major theme in Japanese art since forever, and many Japanese people are ready to cry at a moment's notice about the past or their memories of it, but also as far as I know from my limited personal experience, everyone also constantly talks about it in daily life, and almost always as a positive thing, and always just with one term – natsukashii. That can't be right, can it? Are there other Japanese terms for this sort of thing that have more gradations of meaning? Or does the one term get used for both positive and negative nostalgia? As so often with Japanese, I feel like this is a kind of inverse "100 words for snow" situation…

  12. maidhc said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 10:37 pm

    "Staircase wit" is the English term, but that's a translation of the French and German versions. I have a notion that the French version was the original, but I have no citations to back it up.

  13. Chris C. said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 10:52 pm

    Wikipedia ascribes the idea, if not the expression, to Diderot. On the other hand, the Yiddish expression "trepverter" means the same thing and I don't know how freely ideas flowed from 18th century French philosophy into Jewish thought.

  14. maidhc said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 12:03 am

    Why is Schattenparker an insult? It seems very sensible.

    Go to any large parking lot around here and the shaded spots are always the first to fill up, even if they are way on the other side of the lot.

    I'm on the Warmduscher team as well.

  15. benjamin said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 3:17 am

    May I suggest the correction "due to its sequence of letters" –> "due to its sequence of sounds" in the definition of Zungenbrecher? Children already play with them before reading at all…

    Explaining 17: If you're a "real" man, you just don't need to park in the shadow (vs. Schattenparker), you don't complain about cold water (vs. Warmduscher), and you don't obey to your wife requesting that you sit down to pee to avoid drips (vs. Sitzpinkler).

    I understand 10. Weichei quite differently, because an Ei is not only an egg, but also a `ball' (i.e. `testicle'). So a Weichei is the opposite of a `ballish man/person', i.e. `a person with lack of courage'. The French equivalent translates exactly with this meaning of Ei: couille molle lit. `ball (=testicle) soft'.

    To 15.: French has haut comme 3 pommes lit. `tall like 3 apples' exactly with the meaning of dreikäsehoch.

    And thanks for sharing 5. sich fremdschämen, now I have a word for that feeling…

  16. benjamin said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 3:21 am

    oops, I used backword single quotes in my comment, it appears a bit wrong.

    Here a correction of the 3rd paragraph (I hope…):

    I understand 10. Weichei quite differently, because an Ei is not only an egg, but also a 'ball' (i.e. 'testicle'). So a Weichei is the opposite of a 'ballish man/person',i.e. 'a person with lack of courage'. The French equivalent translates exactly with this meaning of Ei: couille molle, lit. 'ball (=testicle) soft'.

  17. ~flow said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 4:49 am

    No single word comes to mind for negative nostalgia but there is "schlechte alte Zeiten" (bad old days) which works just as the English equivalent, as a more or less jocular reversal of the more common (or more cliche) "gute alte Zeiten" (good old days).

    May I remark that I think the translation and explanation for "Erklärungsnot" is a tad off IMHO; "Not" (with a long o) is not poverty per se here, but transports associations to "Zwang", "knapp", "eng" and so on; indeed, its closest etymological equivalent in English is "need" (when you're in need of something, or generally needy). "Notlage" is a state of emergency where immediate action is being called for. "Being in a pinch", "hard pressed for explanations" sound like appropriate translations to me.

  18. David Marjanović said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 4:55 am

    We can do LaTeX here…?!?

    Anyway, German does have a term for one particular type of largely negative nostalgia: Ostalgie, nostalgia for communist East Germany, with Osten, Ost- "east" in it.

    Explaining 17: If you're a "real" man, you just don't need to park in the shadow (vs. Schattenparker), you don't complain about cold water (vs. Warmduscher), and you don't obey to your wife requesting that you sit down to pee to avoid drips (vs. Sitzpinkler).

    Indeed, if you're such a macho, you don't even try to understand your wife or any other woman, vs. Frauenversteher ("women-understander").

    I have not encountered any of these "insults" being used in earnest. Some were probably coined as jokes to begin with.

    Weichei is used in earnest, and I agree it probably refers to testicles.

    Not is not simply poverty, more like need-related emergency. If you're adrift at sea, you're in Seenot.

    I'd bet actual money that Treppenwitz, a rare word these days, is a calque from esprit de l'escalier – from a time when Witz still meant "wit"; today it means "joke" outside of a few fixed expressions.

  19. AG said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 7:30 am

    @ flow – i think German "Not" = English "need" has always been unusually clear to me b/c my gateways to learning German were Nietzsche, who uses the weird formulation "Es tut Noth, …" a lot in "Also Sprach…" (is that Biblical?), and Wagner, who made a lot of bad puns about how needed the sword named "Nothung" was.

  20. arthur said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 9:36 am

    "naustalgia" = nausea induced by recollection of past unpleasantness

  21. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 9:52 am

    Any discussion (or even mention!) of German tongue twisters is incomplete without a link to Rhabarberbarbara!

  22. Bob Ladd said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 12:34 pm

    @ David Morris: When the word nostalgia was first coined, it was indeed negative – it seems to have first been used to refer to extreme homesickness and depression among Swiss mercenaries serving elsewhere in Europe (e.g. the Swiss Guards in the Vatican). As Wikipedia puts it: "Nostalgia's definition has changed greatly over time. Consistent with its Greek word roots meaning "homecoming" and "pain," nostalgia was for centuries considered a potentially debilitating and sometimes fatal medical condition expressing extreme homesickness."

  23. Belial Issimo said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 2:20 pm

    Nostalgie de la bù.

  24. Stephen Goranson said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 3:33 am

    For analysis maybe: The Future of Nostalgia by Svetlana Boym (2002).

  25. David said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 6:21 am

    "The term “nostalgia” was coined in 1688 by Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer, in his dissertation, to diagnose the suffering of Swiss mercenaries abroad. It comes from the Greek nostos, for “homecoming,” and algos, for “pain”—literally, a painful desire for home."

  26. Don Keyser said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 8:53 am


    A retired Swiss diplomat with whom I shared the posting "Negative Nostalgia" (aka "The German Genius for Creating Weirdly Apt Words") commented "brilliant article." He offered his own favorite German word Verzichtsplanung, one very common in the Swiss Federal bureaucracy, a word "untranslatable in French … and an apt characterization of the obsession with planning and organization" (so typical of Germans). He explained that the word captures the thought "before planning what you want to do (which is something everybody does, or is supposed to do), you plan what you will not be able to do in order to provide you with the time required to enable you to do what you are planning to do."

    This, he added, is "where the German specific organizational gene lies. From the moment I heard the word "Verzichtsplanung", my admiration for German culture in general and for the German language in particular, which was already quite high, reached a peak it never left since."

    If there is one standard English rendering of Verzichtsplanung, I cannot find it. It seems to come out, depending on context, as "project planning," "forward planning," "focused planning practices," "effective planning" and such … all of them rather poor and partial renditions of what my Swiss friend suggests.


  27. julie lee said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 8:11 pm

    I don't remember if the Chinese (Mandarin) equivalent for Schadenfreude has been mentioned in previous LL posts, but there is one. It is

    "幸災樂禍" xing4 zai1 le4 huo4,

    which, word-for-word, means
    "Delighted disaster elated calamity",

    meaning "Delighted over someone else's disaster, elated over someone else's calamity".

    Just as Schadenfreude is a compound made up of two words, so 幸災樂禍 is a compound made up of four words. Although it unpacks into many English words, the Chinese expression, like Schadenfreude, has only four syllables.

  28. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 25, 2019 @ 8:41 am

    Fremdschämen looks like a calque of the Spanish vergüenza ajena.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    May 28, 2019 @ 10:45 am

    From an anonymous correspondent in China:

    I happened to have a similar experience recently. My husband went to Shijiazhuang (石家庄)for business a few days ago and took a picture before the gate of Shijiazhuang Army Acadamy (石家庄陆军学院)where both of us spent a year for military training. Negative nostalgia is exactly the word describing my feeling of those remote days, during which we had brainwashing classes and monotonous daily schedule. Physical training did make us stronger and healthier. That was surely one of the purposes of the one-year military training to strengthen the body and weaken the mind. But I really enjoyed the shooting class and I was on the shooting team as one of the best shooters. And I remember one of our male schoolmates sang A Piece of Red Cloth (一块红布), a song by Cui Jian (崔健)during the camp and field training, when we walked through the almost forsaken Taihang Mountain (太行山). That was the first time I heard Cui Jian's song and it was shocking. The scene is so clear in my mind as if it happened yesterday. It was 28 years ago and I can't believe I've grown so old:)

  30. Victor Mair said,

    May 28, 2019 @ 11:22 am

    "A Piece of Red Cloth (一块红布)", a song by Cui Jian (崔健)

    Music Series: Cui Jian – A Piece of Red Cloth

    “I performed at Tiananmen Square in 1989, 15 days before the crackdown. I sang A Piece of Red Cloth (一块红布), a tune about alienation. I covered my eyes with a red cloth to symbolize my feelings. The students were heroes. They needed me, and I needed them. After Tiananmen, however, authorities banned concerts. We performed instead at “parties,” unofficial shows in hotels and restaurants”. [Cui Jian’s words, link here]

    "A Piece of Red Cloth" is one of the most classic songs of Cui Jian‘s. It sounds like a love story but actually it portrays the special time of chaos and the beliefs of the youth.

    Lyrics in English translation here.

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