L’esprit d’escalier

English has many words and phrases that were originally borrowed from a variety other languages, some which were even borrowed into English unchanged from the spellings, meanings, and pronunciations that they had in the language they come from.  The following are a few examples:

The German word doppelganger has become a common phrase in American popular culture, as well as uber, which is now even used as the name of the famous, multinational transportation network company.  In German, uber means above, so you can see how it would come to refer to an outstanding example of something, or above the rest, not to mention how it would be seen as a great idea for the name of a company.

Karaoke is originally a Japanese word, which means“empty orchestra.” That’s what karaoke is, when you think about it–it takes music that focuses on the singer, but removes the vocals so that the music is empty, and so that anyone can sing along in place of the original singer.

The word “slogan” is from Scottish Gaelic, and it originally referred to a battle cry.

From French, we use the phrase deja vu in English to describe when a situation feels so eerily familiar that you wonder if maybe you have experienced it before. Its literal meaning is “already seen.”

As it turns out, there are other French words that could be useful in English as well. For example…

Have you ever gotten that feeling, right after you finish talking to someone, where suddenly you remember all the things you really wanted to say, now that the conversation has ended? Well, the French language has a simple way to describe that. This phrase is l’esprit de l’escalier, or l’esprit d’escalier, which means “staircase wit.”

Since this is the last passion post, I thought it would be the perfect word for this week. Since blogging is a form of conversation in a way, and I’m sure there will be things, when I’m done, that I’ll realize would have fit well with what I wrote, and that I’ll wish I had shared in these posts.

According to Wikipedia, some English speakers say escalator wit, staircase wit, or afterwit, to describe the situation. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard someone say either of those. I do personally experience esprit d’escalier quite often, though, and I think the phrase staircase wit kind of makes sense, especially if you imagine a spiral staircase. In the midst of a conversation, the ideas you want to express can seem to spiral up and out of your consciousness like a spiral staircase, until you leave the conversation, at which point they come back around from your subconscious, returning to your conscious mind. 

Weltschmerz and Altschmerz

There I was, just another afternoon browsing Pinterest for some inspiration, when it caught my eye. A word I just had to write about. This word, altschmerz, was claimed to mean “weariness with the same old issues you’ve always had–the same boring flaws and anxieties you’ve been gnawing on for years.”

I immediately felt like this word was very relatable, but I wondered if it was officially a real word. As it turns out, it isn’t quite a real word, but someone named John Koenig made it up by altering a real German word, that real word being weltschmerz. It does not have a direct English equivalent. However, in German, welt means world, and schmerz means pain, so as a compound word, the combination, literally translated, means “world pain.”

Some words that come close to describing it in English are world-weariness and melancholy. However, melancholy isn’t specific enough, because it is basically deep sadness without a given cause, and world-weariness is not quite the same as weltschmerz either, being defined by Merriam-Webster as “feeling or showing fatigue from, or boredom with, the life of the world, and especially material pleasures.”

Merriam-Webster defines weltschmerz, on the other hand, as “mental depression or apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state.” It is the kind of word that acknowledges that the world will never be quite the way you want it to be. I like the idea that a single word could be used to express that specific feeling, which can be difficult to describe in English. 

Interestingly, the Merriam-Webster website also explains some of the known history of how weltschmerz first came to be a word. Its first known use was actually by Jean Paul, the poet from the era of Romanticism, in his novel Selena, which was published in 1827.


Hiraeth is a Welsh word that is somewhat difficult to describe in English, for the reason that there is no single English word that expresses all that it does. Some words often used to try to explain it are homesickness, yearning, and longing.  

However, there is more depth to hiraeth than in any of those words on their own. It seems to be a rather multi-layered word, which includes a different variety of homesickness than what is generally referred to. This kind of homesickness is like a combination of the homesickness, longing, nostalgia, and yearning, for a home that you cannot return to, no longer exists, or maybe never was. It can also include grief or sadness for who or what you have lost, losses which make your “home” not the same as the one you remember.

One attempt to describe hiraeth in English says that it is “a longing to be where your spirit lives.” This description makes some sense out of the combination of words that describe this feeling.  The place where your spirit feels most at home may be a physical location that you can return to at any time, or it may be more nostalgic of a home, not attached to a place, but a time from the past that you can only return to by revisiting old memories. Maybe your spirits home could even be neither of the above, one from which you are not only separated by space or time, but instead a place that never was, where you can only go in your imagination.

Sometimes hiraeth is used by Welsh people to describe their admiration for the beauty of the landscape of their country, or their nostalgia for way their country used to be, or at least the way it is depicted in stories of how it once was. Wales itself was named not by the Welsh people, but by the Saxons (who would become the people of England). The Saxons saw who we call the Welsh, the original inhabitants of Briton, as foreigners. Wales means “Place of the Others.” The Welsh people themselves prefer to call themselves Cymry, and to call their country Cymru. There are stories of Cymry heroes who would bring Cymru back to its former glory. The landscape is one aspect of Wales, or Cymru, that can fill some of its people with national pride for their home.

I relate strongly to the word hiraeth. My best personal example of this feeling is being homesick during this first year living at Penn State. I don’t get homesick very often, but at moments when I have, I realized that the home I was yearning for, longing to return to, was the home from my childhood, which has considerable differences from the home I actually go back to on breaks. I live in the same house, and my parents and my brother are still there, but we no longer have the carefree summer breaks I remember fondly from my childhood. I will be greeted not by the cat I had as a kid, but by the dog my family got three years ago.

Home to me includes the places I would go to as a kid–places like my grandparents’ houses, and the elderly couple’s house across the street from mine. I remember my maternal grandmother elaborately decorating her house for Christmas and Easter, having meals there for each of those big holidays. I remember her, when my family and I visited her house, and my paternal grandfather, when we visited his house, offering everyone cookies even when we were so stuffed we could hardly eat another bite. I remember the neighbors visiting us for the family parties that were held at my house, and my brother and I occasionally visiting them in their house to share a snack and hear some of their stories about the past. The most significant difference between the home I remember and the home I can return to, is that some of the people I remember as a part of home are no longer living.

Because of this, I understand how it is possible to be homesick for a place that you cannot go back to. My dad could probably understand it too, as I’m sure he misses the way home was when his father was still alive. This kind of homesickness does not leave you even when you return the place you call home, and that’s what makes it hiraeth. However, to my dad, as to some Welsh people, hiraeth is a call to go to the place that brings him as emotionally close as possible to the place his spirit lives. And my dad, like those people, finds this place in the landscape, in nature, in the mountains.  He has told me that sometimes when he’s on a hike, he feels close to my grandfather. His spirit is close to the spirit of his father, and that is where he feels most at home.

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