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.

One thought on “Weltschmerz and Altschmerz

  1. Sam,

    Although you provided excellent definitions of these two words, I still find myself struggling to grasp what exactly is meant by altschmerz and weltschmerz. This isn’t because you’re descriptions were inadequate by any means, but rather, because I’m finding it hard to find a personal connection to their meanings. For altschmerz, when I think of “the same old boring flaws I’ve been gnawing on for years”, I guess the thing that most closely resembles this for me personally is my obsession with perfectionism. While at times it is a good thing, I often times find that I desire a level of performance that simply isn’t attainable. It’s always been a struggle for me to recognize when enough is enough and identify my talents as ‘good enough’.

    For weltschmerz, or “world-pain” I am reminded of books we were required to read in high school like Fountainhead, 1984, or Fahrenheit 451. These dystopian novels focused on the disparity between the present world and the ideal one; always captivating me with thoughts of how I wish our present society were different. I think what’s really interesting in these words are their subjective nature. Each person has their own personal experiences which alter the definitions of the word and change how they are perceived. Your blog has been eye-opening in terms of understanding that a word is simply more than it’s definition, it is also how the individuals’ past influences it’s interpretation.

    I really enjoy reading your passion blog! I’m looking forward to what words you come across for the next post; keep up the good work!

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