Wanderlust, or: The Luggage of Words

Milano, Stazione Centrale

It is a human characteristic that we often want to be where we currently are not. Exploring new places, meeting new people, eating unknown food, learning new words (or even whole languages). It has to do with beginnings. And there is something amazing about beginnings: this mixture of curiosity, adventure, learning, sensing, and broadening of one’s own horizon. Traveling holds many beginnings. So, no wonder that – at least for many people – it is a very exciting endeavor.

The English language has several expressions for this longing to travel: itchy feet, having the travel bug, yen to see distant places, wanderlust. Wanderlust, for some reasons, stands out. It could be an English word, combined by “to wander” and “lust”. But there is a slight difference. Wanderlust is actually derived from the German words “wandern” (to hike) and “Lust” (desire, lust, passion, inclination). So, the desire to hike – or to travel, in a broader sense.

Now, as a German, I think the English borrowing of this German word is… nice. But there is a far more interesting word that could have been loaned: Fernweh. The word Fernweh was artificially created as a counterpart to the word Heimweh. Heimweh (“homesickness”) means the longing to be at home although you are currently not. So, turn the last sentence somewhat around and you’ll know what Fernweh means.

By the way, did you know that words can travel, too? From one mind to another. From one collective mind (or society) to a different one. Words can be invited, stolen, borrowed, sent away, displaced, disrooted. They can get lost. And they can be found again. Yes, words can travel. For this reason – and many others – they carry luggage. Bigger suitcases and smaller bags. Emotional, spiritual, scientific, mental luggage. All kinds of luggage. This luggage creates many pictures especially in the native speaker’s head, and evokes several emotions. (We commonly call this luggage “connotations”. Linguists call an individual piece of luggage a “seme“, the smallest element of meaning of a word. The science that studies the “luggage” of words is called linguistic semantics.)

Fernweh has luggage, too. It’s a wonderfully emotional word. With a lot of poetic bags. Mainly because of the meanings of its two parts: “fern” (far, distant) and “Weh” (woe, ache, bale). So how would far woe sound to you? Or distant bale for that matter? Quite the difference compared to wanderlust, right? Fernweh has a much gloomier connotation than wanderlust. After all, woe is different from mere lust on so many levels, isn’t it? There is much more suffering in Fernweh. You can almost grasp the pain that comes from this yearning to be somewhere else. This burden of wanting to travel, to explore. Similar to Heimweh, i.e. “homesickness” – and a sickness is not nice.

Homesickness is not only the lust to be at home, but the strong pull on your heart to be where home is. This pull can get so strong, that it makes you sick. Or at least gloomy. As in Fernweh. Oh, this craving to travel!! It overcomes me sometimes. And then I peruse pictures of Southern Europe on the internet for a long time, sometimes hours. And sooo wish to be there… I want to put my sandals and my diary in a bag and board a train. But there are no trains leaving from the town I live in. So I go to the kitchen and fix me some mediterranean dinner. And go back to work.


Let’s talk! What is a favorite emotionally loaden word for you – and why? What connotations are connected to it? Let me know. I’m looking forward to what you are going to share…


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