Japan Currents, August, 1997

What's in a Word?


The two men pause in front of a shop window, regarding an old poster for a Sean Connery 007 film. "That really brings back memories, doesn't it?" one of them remarks.

The background music in the restaurant suddenly changes to a rock and roll tune from the 50s. The middle-aged man grins at his wife. "Doesn't that remind you of our high school prom?"

A couple strolls past a child playing in a sandbox. The woman nudges the man with her elbow and smiles... "Remember?" she says, "that summer at the beach..."

Two office workers watch as the special train, filled with high school students on their school trip, pulls away from the platform. "Natsukashii nee," they say, almost in unison...

The shared recollection of fond memories, triggered by a sight or sound or smell, is certainly one of life's little pleasures. And so it was something of a delight for me to discover, after not too long in Japan, that "the Japanese have a word for it," and it seems to fit almost any occasion. Natsukashii quickly became a part of my everyday vocabulary, and after a while, I noticed that my foreign friends seemed to use it as frequently as the Japanese themselves... even when they were speaking English!

But why would English speakers add natsukashii to their English conversational repertoire? Do they lack a succinct way of expressing the idea? In fact, without such a word, we have to express "what brings back fond memories" rather explicitly:

    "That reminds me of when we used to play that game at school, remember?"
    "Wow, this brings back memories of the college dorm, doesn't it?"
    "Doesn't this remind you of the candy we used to eat in the movies as kids?"
    "This takes you back 20 years, don't you think?"
When I've mentioned this apparent shortcoming to some of my Japanese colleagues, they've often suggested "nostalgic" as an equivalent. But while it does appear in dictionaries as a suggested sense of natsukashii, people hardly ever say to each other anything like 'how nostalgic!' It simply isn't used in the way natsukashii is. It lacks the "good memories" sense of "really brings you back," and carries more of a feeling of longing for the good old days, or returning to some romantic time in the past. A dictionary description of nostalgia shows "a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one's life, to one's home or homeland, or to one's family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time."

This implication of a kind of dissatisfaction with the present condition in nostalgia, apparently absent from natsukashii, can be discovered in its roots. 'Nostalgia' was originally coined at the end of the 18th century as a medical term, from the two Greek forms, nóst(os) 'return home,' and algos 'pain,' to describe a psychological condition, "A form of melancholia caused by prolonged absence from one's home or country; severe home-sickness." It was a problem for sailors or others forced to stay for extended periods far from home, and was reported in one of Capt. James Cook's journals (1770): "The greatest part of [the ship's company] were now pretty far gone with the longing for home, which the physicians have gone so far as to esteem a disease under the name of Nostalgia."

I'm not suggesting that the roots of a word are common knowledge, and they usually have little effect on our feeling about a word, but other associations may. In my case, for example, the only other "-algia" word I can think of is 'neuralgia,' a fairly uncommon word, which I learned from television pain-killer commercials as a boy... "cures the symptoms of headache, neuritis, neuralgia..." Perhaps it's this kind of connection which subconsciously keeps me away from a comfortable use of nostalgia.

At any rate, 'nostalgia' doesn't make the cut. Why doesn't English have a good natsukashii equivalent? It seems we'd have to search pretty deeply to find an answer to that kind of question. I'm afraid it's hidden in what some 19th century linguists referred to as 'the genius of the language,' that elusive and mysterious aspect which makes languages unique and appropriate to their cultures. Examples of this kind of gap are abundant, and although English seems as happy to adopt foreign terms as Japanese, the fairly limited influence of Japanese on English is unlikely to result in such a loan. We'll probably have to wait a long while, or maybe even longer, before hearing on an American street, "Look, there's an old karaoke machine! Natsukashii, isn't it?"

Stephen Trussel