Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson: you find the present tense, but the past perfect.
There’s an old Latin phrase that goes, “memoria praeteritorum bonorum,” which translates as “the past is always well remembered.” Psychologists talk about the phenomenon of “rosy retrospection,” a memory bias whereby people tend to see the past in a much more favorable light than it actually was. Doubtless the simple, pastoral existence of the Middle Ages farmer was marked by the gentle passing of time, the merry laughter of the harvest festivals, and the close camaraderie of happy peasants. Well, except for the typhus, bubonic plague, starvation, high infant mortality rate, and a life expectancy of 30.
The GOD factor – Good Old Days – permeates every culture and it’s taken for granted that “things ain’t what they used to be.” Why, what’s the London Times (or Daily Telegraph) letters page without the occasional “this-country’s-going-to-the-dogs” missive from “Disgruntled of Surrey?
This yearning for the glory days of the Empire or the Rousseauian “Noble Savage” is usually referred to as nostalgia, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as;
Sentimental longing for or regretful memory of a period of the past, esp. one in an individual’s own lifetime; (also) sentimental imagining or evocation of a period of the past.
The word first makes an appearance in English in J.G. Keyssler’s 1756 Travels where he says, “At least it is thus Scheuchzer endeavours to vindicate the nostalgia, pathopatridalgia, or the heimweh, i. e. home-sickness, with which those of Bern are especially afflicted.”
At that time, nostalgia meant homesickness – a desire for familiar surroundings. This meaning derives from the ancient Greek νοστος , which mean “to return home,” along with the suffix αλγία, which means “pain.” So nostalgia is literally the pain caused by the desire to go home.
It wasn’t until the beginning of the 1900’s that nostalgia had taken on that notion of sentimental yearning for the past – prior to that it was used for general homesickness.
By the 1970’s it had also taken on the extended meaning of something which causes nostalgia, becoming a collective noun for nostalgia-inducing things. The Penguin Travel Guide to the United States in 1979 said of a store in the US that it “sell amusing nostalgia and contemporary adaptations.”
Now, way back in 760 BC, a Greek poet called Agias decided to write a poem about the return of the Achaean Greeks from the siege of Troy, and he entitled it Nostoi – the return. Homer’s Iliad, written perhaps at about the same time but likely to have existed orally for many years prior – is also a story of home-coming.
So the modern meaning of nostalgia has a long history that stems from the notion of homesickness. And if there is one thing that we do seem to know; nostalgia certainly ain’t what it used to be.