How to Tell Whether You've Got Angst, Ennui, or Weltschmerz

istock
istock

English has many words for the feelings that can arise when a good, hard look at the state of the world seems to reveal only negatives. Hopelessness, despair, depression, discouragement, melancholy, sorrow, worry, disconsolation, distress, anxiety …there are so many that it would hardly seem necessary to borrow any more from other languages. But English never hesitates to borrow words that would lose certain subtleties in translation, and angst, ennui, and weltschmerz have made their way into English by offering a little something extra. Have you got a case of one of these imported maladies? Here’s a little guide to help you diagnose.

Angst

Angst is the word for fear in German, Dutch, and Danish. It comes from the same Indo-European root (meaning tight, constricted, painful) that gave us anguish, anxiety, and anger. In the mid 19th century it became associated with a specific kind of existential dread through the work of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. He talked about a type of anxiety that arises in response to nothing in particular, or the sense of nothingness itself. It’s not exactly fear, and not the same as worry, but a simple fact of the human condition, a feeling that disrupts peace and contentment for no definable reason. The word was adopted into English after Freud used it as a term for generalized anxiety. Now it carries shades of philosophical brooding mixed with a dash of psychoanalytic, clinical turmoil. While anxiety and angst are often interchangeable, anxiety foregrounds a feeling of suffering (also present in angst), while angst foregrounds dissatisfaction, a complaint about the way the world is.

Are you dissatisfied and worried in an introspective, overthinking German way? You’ve got angst.

Ennui

Ennui is the French word for boredom. The English word “annoy” comes from an early, 13th century borrowing of the word, but it was borrowed again during the height of 18th century European romanticism, when it stood for a particular, fashionable kind of boredom brought on by weariness with the world. Young people at that time, feeling that the promises of the French Revolution had gone unfulfilled, took on an attitude of lethargic disappointment, a preoccupation with the fundamental emptiness of existence. Nothing mattered, so nothing roused the passions. By the middle of the 19th century, ennui became associated with the alienation of industrialization and modern life. Artists and poets suffered from it, and soon a claim to ennui was a mark of spiritual depth and sensitivity. It implied feelings of superiority and self-regard, the idea being that only bourgeois people too deluded or stupid to see the basic futility of any action could be happy. Now, in English, though it is defined as “a feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction," ennui also has connotations of self-indulgent posturing and European decadence.

Are you tired, so tired of everything about the world and the way it is? Do you proclaim this, with a long, slow sigh, to everyone around you? You’ve got ennui.

Weltschmerz

Weltschmerz, German for “world pain,” was also coined during the Romantic Era and is in many ways the German version of ennui. It describes a world weariness felt from a perceived mismatch between the ideal image of how the world should be with how it really is. In German philosophy it was distinguished from pessimism, the idea that there is more bad than good in the world, because while pessimism was the logical conclusion of cool, rational philosophical pondering, weltschmerz was an emotional response. Though weltschmerz and ennui are pretty close synonyms, ennui foregrounds the listlessness brought on by world weariness (it can also be a term for more simple boredom), and weltschmerz foregrounds the pain or sadness. There is perhaps a greater sense of yearning in weltschmerz (part of the pain is that the sufferer really wants the world to be otherwise). Also, as an English word, weltschmerz is not as common as ennui, so there are fewer connotations about the type of person that comes down with it. Its very German sound (that “schm”!) makes it seem more serious and grim than ennui.

Do you have sadness in your heart for the world that can never be and sensible shoes? You’ve got weltschmerz.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

Game of Thrones Fans Have Been Mispronouncing Khaleesi

HBO
HBO

While Game of Thrones fans are busy poring over every still image and official trailer released for the show's final season in the hope of noticing some tiny detail that might hint at what's to come, David Peterson—the linguist who creates the series' fictional languages—dropped a huge piece of information: we've all been mispronouncing  Khaleesi.

While being interviewed for The Allusionist podcast, Peterson described the rampant mispronunciation as "a real thorn in my side." So just how should we be saying the Dothraki word?

"I wanted to make sure if something was spelled differently, it was pronounced differently," Peterson explained of his process of transforming the handful of Dothraki words George R.R. Martin had created into a full language. "That worked pretty well for everything except the word Khaleesi ... There's no way it should be pronounced 'ka-LEE-see' based on the spelling. So I had to decide, 'Am I going to respell this thing because I know how people are going to pronounce this, or am I going to honor that spelling and pronounce it differently?' I made the latter decision and I think it was the wrong decision."

(That said, in his book Living Language Dothraki, Peterson writes that "many Dothraki words have multiple pronunciation variants, often depending on whether the speaker is native or non-native. Khaleesi, for example, has three separate pronunciations: khal-eh-si, khal-ee-si, and kal-ee-si," which at a later point in the book spelled is "ka-lee-si.")

Given that Daenerys Targaryen has a mouthful of other titles at her disposal, we'll just call her the Mother of Dragons from now on.

Game of Thrones returns for its final season on April 14, 2019.

[h/t: Digital Spy]

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