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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One word that has caught my interest is “verklempt,” which means “the state of being completely overcome with emotion.” I think the reason I find this word so intriguing is because emotions are one of the traits often cited as what make us human, especially empathy, such as the empathy and pity surrounding death. 

Not only that, but it’s important to me, because I often seem to find myself verklempt. My roommate and I particularly found ourselves in such a state this week because a good friend of her cousin’s could die any moment from cancer. He’s only twenty-one years old. 

The truth is, we don’t even know him personally. We never met him. We don’t have to be emotional about it.  But her cousin told us all about him, and now that the situation has a face, or at least a personality, we can’t seem to help but be verklempt about it. 

The word finds its origins in Yiddish. It was borrowed from the Yiddish “farklempt,” with the meaning “depressed, grieving.”  Interestingly, this was actually the past participle of “farklemen,” meaning “to grip, to press.” Merriam-Webster actually traces “verklempt” all the way back to coming from the Old English word “clam” or “clom.” This meant “bond, fetter.”

Then the Germanic root was “klamm-” and it became “klammjan.” In Old High German it became “klemmen” meaning “to press, to squeeze.” In Middle High German it became “verklemmen,” with the “ver-” added to signify that it was with intense force, so that it meant “to press or squeeze intensely.”  It kind of makes sense that “ver-” would make it more intense because it sounds like the word “very.”

Finally, in Yiddish, it became “farklemen,” meaning “to grip, to press.” The past participle of that very word is “farklempt,” with the meaning “depressed, grieving,” from which the word “verklempt” was directly borrowed.  It kind of makes sense that there would be a connection between a bond, clamp, or squeezing or pressing, with intense emotions, especially those of grief.  

The same way a clamp may inhibit the movement of an object, powerful emotions can inhibit people’s abilities to express themselves. The word itself even kind of resembles the sound of someone trying to speak when they are getting choked up and starting to cry. Deep emotions are notoriously one of the most difficult things to express, but at least we can say that we are verklempt. 

On a lighter note, Saturday Night Live has used the word in a comical way, using the character Linda Richman.

Another perfect example of this word is a moment any true Whovian (that’s a fan of the British TV show Doctor Who, if you don’t know) recognizes: the moment in “The End of Time” special when the Tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant, starts to regenerate, and says the words “I don’t want to go.” Both he as the character and he the actor, who was filming his last scene as the iconic Doctor, was indeed verklempt. Many fans would say that the scene had them all verklempt as well.

The Tenth Doctor certainly had no shortage of verklempt scenes. Another example was the scene(s) in which he lost Rose, or moments in which he lost any of his other companions. Doctor Who, despite being science fiction, is a very emotional show. That is at least the case for the revived series, since 2005.  I haven’t seen very much Classic Doctor Who, which was on TV from 1963-1989, so I don’t know how it compared in that regard.

To wrap up the post for this week, I’ll make it easy for anyone commenting, because feedback can be fun:

Is verklempt a word you’ve heard of? According to Merriam-Webster, its first known usage was quite recent, in 1993. If you have heard of the word, was it from the Saturday Night Live sketch or somewhere else? Do you think it is useful? Can you think of any examples of times that you personally were verklempt?


I’m taking a cultural anthropology class this semester, and one key idea discussed in the book is the idea that anthropologists should look back on their own culture and try to imagine how strange and bizarre it would seem to an outsider.  A good word for that process of defamiliarization or estrangement that can happen in the study of anthropology may be ostranenie.

Ostranenie was originally a Russian word. According to dictionary.com, it was a Russian literary critic and writer, who went by the name of Viktor Shklovsky, who first coined the term. There is more information to be found about the word ostranenie on the Oxford Reference web site, which states that ostranenie was a major concept of Russian Formalism.  According to another entry on Oxford Reference, Russian Formalism was “a school of literary theory and analysis” that first came to be in about 1915.  

The original purpose for the word was to describe the defamiliarization that often happens in literature, especially in poetic literature. At the time, literature was usually viewed as more like a reflection of reality, but Shklovsky and the other Formalists proposed that on the contrary, good literature took reality out of its context and made simple and ordinary things seem strange. Shklovsky, as a leading thinker of the Russian Formalists, called this ostranenie.

In case the idea is difficult to understand, take Shklovsky’s example, from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, of how Tolstoy describes an opera as ‘painted cardboard and oddly dressed men and women who moved, spoke and sang strangely in a patch of blazing light.’  It certainly makes an opera sound like a bizarre yet fascinating type of event, while most people, especially at the time, would have considered an opera to be nothing out of the ordinary.

On a personal level, the idea of ostranenie is important to me, because I often view life through a defamiliarized, or “ostraneneic” lens, if you will. Having the ability to view one’s own way of life as strange and fascinating can help one to have an objective viewpoint in anthropology rather than an ethnocentric one.  The idea that defamiliarization, or ostranenie, can be useful, is one of the reasons I like anthropology.

Can you think of any other examlples of ostranenie or ways it can be useful?


This is my passion blog, and it is not usually going to be very useful, so if outright useful information is what you are looking for, you might want to look somewhere else.  

This blog is going to be fun and artistic, about things that may not always have an apparent purpose… Specifically, it is going to be about unique words.  These will mostly be words that are rarely used and that express something in a unique way.  

Now sometimes, on occasion, we may stumble upon some useful realizations about words or about language.  So don’t be disappointed if you actually learn something on this fun little mostly-pointless journey.

The word I would like to share with you all this week is metanoia.  The meaning of this noun has been described as a transformation or conversion, usually spiritual.  Thus it has also been described as the process or journey of changing one’s mind, heart, self, or way of life. According to Merriam-Webster, it originated from the Greek word metanoiein, which means “to change one’s mind” or “repent.”  Metanoia has been used in religious context to refer to repentance.

When we read into the meaning and origin of this word, we have already stumbled upon something interesting. Often when people think of “repentance,” they think of feeling sorry, regretful, or remorseful for one’s mistakes or sins. That is one way repentance can be defined.  Regret is usually an uncomfortable feeling, though, and may make some people associate repentance with discomfort.  However, if we instead think of repentance as changing one’s mind, metanoia, it may have a more positive and less uncomfortable connotation.  It could just be me, but I think this is an interesting example of how the different connotations of words that may be listed as synonyms can shape people’s opinions about what these words refer to. 


Some groups even use the name Metanoia, such as this holistic community development group.  An organization called Metanoia Films offers “powerful, educational, and free online documentary films.” One website calls itself metanoia and seeks to talk people out of suicide.  The word metanoia makes sense for all of these because each offers a way to change people’s minds about something and/or even take them on a spiritual journey, whether it be by teaching them information on how to holistically improve their communities, providing documentaries online, or changing their minds about suicide.

Personally, I like this word a lot because I like the connection between changing one’s mind and going on a spiritual journey.  The word also sounds really cool and mysterious in my opinion. I could use it to describe multiple moments or “snapshots” of my life so far, where my opinions and perspectives on reality were questioned and I thought more deeply than I had ever thought before.

One time that I experienced metanoia was in ninth grade when my English teacher challenged my class to think philosophically, to question the world around us and to ask whether or not the world really has to be the way that it is.  He was the kind of teacher who got students to question their religions and to think for themselves. In the metanoia I experienced, I really did question my own religion, but after all the thinking I still believed and I still do today. Sometimes doubting and questioning something makes you realize more profoundly the nature of that thing and how strongly you feel about it. That’s what happened to me and in all honesty, it continues to happen to me.

I may even be having a metanoia in the Sociology of Gender class I’m taking this semester. It has been encouraging me to see the world in a new way and realize how deeply gender stereotypes our ingrained into society and also our minds, especially when it comes to double standards and people assuming that they know what someone wants romantically based on their gender.  Society is becoming more open and accepting, but it is slow and difficult to change the way people see the world as split up neatly into heterosexual males and females. With how policies have been changing the past few years, though, it’s almost as if a big part of the world is slowly experiencing some metanoia of equality.

I’m not sure if I’ve been using the word correctly, and that may be difficult to figure out because it’s a word that is rarely used in everyday English speech.  Online dictionaries use examples that refer to “the metanoia” almost as if it is a spiritual movement or revolution, almost as though it is even prophesied to occur once at some point and change the entire world. Regardless, I used it in ways the definition suggests to me that it could be used, and I think most people experience metanoia at some point in their lives.