Word of the Week: Fernweh

The new semester is finally here! Our first class of 2018 will begin this Sunday, and we’re excited to start up again. This week our Word of the Week is a word for the feeling that may be bringing many of us to GLN this Spring. Coming from German, our word is Fernweh, and it is another word that is untranslatable–or at best only “quasi-translatable”–into English.

Casually put, Fernweh refers to a longing to travel and is usually translated as “wanderlust” in English (That’s the translation you’ll get in most German-English dictionaries, anyway.). But if you ask a German, odds are you’ll be told that “wanderlust” doesn’t quite cut it. Wanderlust refers to a desire to visit new places and see new things. It can be strong and even aching, but at the end of the day Wanderlust still refers to a desire like most other desires.

By contrast, Fernweh literally (if clumsily…) translates to “distant pain” or “distant sickness.” Germans often think of it as the other hand of Heimweh, which translates more directly into English as “homesickness.” To really get a sense of what Fernweh is, just imagine what it’s like to feel really homesick, but then instead of returning to Kansas think of going to Oz. Fernweh is the sense that you somehow don’t belong or that you’re somehow out of step unless you’re traveling–unless you’re somewhere else. It’s the reason you can dream of living in Paris or Tokyo for your whole life without ever even visiting those places. Really, how many of us have never thought the phrase, “I should have been born in [X]!”

There’s something awfully romantic about Fernweh, and it can be a great driver to learn about other people and places. Still, it is important to remember that Fernweh can be double edged. After all, when we engage with the rest of the world, it should be for the sake of better understanding one another, rather than simply using other cultures to satisfy our own imaginations.

Just something to think about… Incidentally, something much easier to think about with the help of our untranslatable German words.

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