It's customary at the end of every year to look back over our most recent spin around the Sun — to note highlights and low points, to make "best-of" lists, to assess what's changed.
I'm not going to do any of that. Not yet, anyway.
Instead, I want to talk about how we hark back — about our language of nostalgia and retrospect.
Let's start with nostalgia itself. When the word was coined by the Swiss scholar Johannes Hofer in 1688, from Greek roots meaning "return home" and "pain," it meant "severe homesickness," and it was considered a serious disease. It referred to young Swiss people who'd been sent abroad as soldiers or servants and who were incapacitated by their longing for home. "One of the early symptoms of nostalgia was an ability to hear voices or see ghosts," writes Svetlana Boym in The Future of Nostalgia (2001). The condition was considered fatal if untreated.
By the 19th century, nostalgia had lost its Swiss associations but was still a medical diagnosis. Troops in the American Civil War were especially susceptible, as were Scottish soldiers whose intense melancholy could be triggered by the sound of bagpipes. By 1920, though, nostalgia settled into its present-day sense: a bittersweet yet positive longing for a distant place or time. "We often gloss over painful parts of the past to invent idealized memories of the good old days," is how Quartz introduced a recent series of articles on "The Nostalgia Economy." Those "good old days"? We've been talking about them since at least 1727, when Daniel Defoe nostalgized that "In the good old days of Trade, there were no Bubbles, no Stock-jobbing." (It's unclear which old days Defoe was pining for.)
Linguistically, nostalgia isn't stuck in the past. Solastalgia, defined as "the distress caused by environmental change," was coined in 2005 by the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht, who combined the -algia root with solas, from a Latin word meaning "comfort." A 2019 article in Entrepreneur magazine identified fauxstalgia — "the yearning for a time in the past, even though you may never have experienced that time directly yourself" — and newstalgia — "constructing something to feel old, even when it's new" — as two trends brands could market to Millennial customers who "love to reminisce about how things used to be" (emphasis in the original). And earlier this year the Guardian coined now-stalgia to describe how fashion in 2020 "is not just stuck in the past, it is in bed with it, snuggling up nice and close and rubbing its cold feet on it."
On Twitter, I spotted even more -stalgia coinages.
Here are some other terms we use in speaking about the past:
Before Time(s). This phrase has become shorthand for "the time preceding the COVID-19 pandemic." In his Word on the Street column for the Wall Street Journal, Ben Zimmer traced its current usage to mid-April 2020, and observed that it draws on "a longstanding trope in fictional accounts of life after some apocalyptic event, as portrayed in novels, movies, and television shows." In Middle English beforetime or beforetimes could be an adverb meaning "formerly," and it persisted in Caribbean English into the modern era. But the most influential and relevant "Before Time" before our time was probably a 1966 episode of "Star Trek." Zimmer writes: "A young girl named Miri … explains how the planet's grown-ups, known as "Grups," disappeared: "That was when they started to get sick in the Before Time. We hid, then they were gone.'"
Flashback. In the first decade of the 20th century, a flashback or flash-back referred to a fire in an engine or furnace. Around 1916 it acquired its cinematic sense of "a narrative technique in which we're shown events that took place before the main action." In the 1960s, we began to speak of flashbacks induced by recreational drugs. Unlike other backward-looking words, flashback suggests a sudden and temporary trip into the Before Time.
Memory lane. This figure of speech appears to have been invented as the title and lyric of a sentimental 1903 song. ("Come let us wander/Among the haunts of Memory Lane/Where ev'ry bud of days gone by/Has blossomed into joy or pain"). Its use today is mostly ironic.
Old-fashioned. We've been using this adjective to mean either "in an outdated style" or "partaking of the old ways" since the middle of the 17th century. The cocktail known as the old fashioned is considerably newer, dating from the 1880s; the name can refer to various combinations of spirits (whiskey, bourbon, gin, brandy, rum), sugar, and bitters.
Old-school. In the 18th century, the noun phrase old school referred to any group known for its conservative views; the adjective form began appearing in 19th-century America, where it was often capitalized ("Old School Democrats"). The term was picked up in the 1980s by rap and hip-hop musicians who sometimes spelled it "old skool" and used it in the sense of "relatively traditional compared to newer forms."
Oldie. Another term whose meaning has shifted over time. In the 18th century, oldie was jocular slang for "an old person." In the 1930s it started to refer to an old or familiar thing, especially a song. Oldie but goodie and golden oldie — a familiar old song or film that's still regarded with affection — first appeared in print between the mid-1950s and in 1960.
Reboot. Originally a computer term meaning "to restart, especially after a power failure or malfunction," by 1980 reboot had acquired its figurative sense as both noun and verb. It's frequently used to give a high-tech shine to what might otherwise be called a rehash or a remake, such as the latest superhero movie.
Retro. The Latin-derived prefix, meaning "backwards," has been used since the 14th century to create English words such as retrograde and retrospect. In the early 1970s retro became a standalone modifier meaning "evoking the past" or "reviving a style from a previous era." Its first published usage, in a 1972 fashion report in the Chicago Tribune, was disparaging: "Yves [Saint Laurent] now drops the tacky retro look that provoked criticism in the past."
Throwback. Like flashback, throwback originally had a literal meaning: the action of throwing something toward the rear (first attested in 1851). The 20th century saw a rise of the figurative use: a return to a style or fashion of the past (first attested in 1923). In January 2006, a blogger coined "Throwback Thursday" in a post about classic cartoons; the phrase was picked up by social-media users posting memories or photos from the past. It frequently appears as a hashtagged acronym: #TBT. If you miss Throwback Thursday, you can try again on Flashback Friday.
Vintage. The vin- prefix tells us that this word originally referred (and can still refer) to grapes: the fruits of the vine. By the 18th century its use had expanded to include "the specific year or age of a particular wine." And in the 1920s and beyond we saw vintage applied to anything old: a vintage car, a vintage tweed jacket.
Want to keep basking in a nostalgic glow? Check out my 2013 column about classic.