German words expats should know: Fernweh
As expats, most of us are probably familiar with the concept of homesickness - whether it’s friends, family, a favourite food, a beloved pet, or just a familiar sense of humour, there’s lots of things we often miss about home. But have you ever felt the feeling in reverse - where you long to travel, perhaps to an unknown, far-off place? The Germans have a word for that: "Fernweh".
Like all good German compound nouns, you need to break Fernweh down into its constituent parts to get an idea of its definition. It’s made up of the words “fern” (far) and “weh” (woe or ache) and so could literally be translated as “far-woe” - that is, an aching for a far-off place. If you’ve ever sat at your computer at work on a Monday afternoon and thought dreamily about your next holiday, you’ll know what we’re talking about.
In this sense, we could define it as the antonym of the German word “Heimweh”, which translates as “homesickness”. A good synonym for Fernweh is another German word that has entered common English usage: Wanderlust. But while Wanderlust describes a joyful lust for travel, Fernweh takes it up a notch and conveys a more tortured emotion. It is an actual pain.
Fernweh meaning: Longing for somewhere you’ve never been
In this way, Fernweh can have a deeper meaning - and if these articles have taught you anything, it’s that Germans love to ascribe a deep, philosophical meaning to a lot of their compound nouns, which often can’t be easily translated into English.
In the case of Fernweh, it’s because the place that’s being longed for isn’t always somewhere tangible. Those of the more poetically-inclined among us might therefore define Fernweh as being homesick for a place you’ve never been - that kind of feeling that tugs at our insides as we flick through travel guides or Instagram feeds.
It could also describe a feeling of hunger for somewhere that doesn’t exist at all - be it Middle Earth, Hogwarts, Narnia, or even the planet of Caprica.
Origins of the word Fernweh
Most sources trace the word Fernweh back to the fantastically-named landscape gardener and great traveller Prince Hermann Ludwig Heinrich von Pückler-Muskau, who during the 19th century published a number of volumes about his adventures in Europe and North Africa. In 1835, Pückler-Muskau wrote that he never suffered from homesickness, but was instead greatly afflicted by its opposite condition, Fernweh.
In 1902, the word first appeared in English in a book called The Basis of Social Relation, in which author Daniel Garrison Brinton described Fernweh as a deep desire or ache to travel, or a “goading restlessness.”
Although Wanderlust remained the word du jour for a long time after, by the end of the 20th centuries Fernweh was beginning to enter more popular usage, most prominently in the advertising campaigns of German travel agencies, who sought to encourage people to put their passports to good use and start exploring the world.
Homesickness, in reverse
So, next time you feel a pull for white sandy shores or the cool depths of a green forest, you’ll know exactly how to describe how you’re feeling. It’s a classic case of Fernweh.