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Naming that indescribable ache to be somewhere else: Fernweh in days of lockdown

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Dreaming of faraway lands

Many of those locked away in long days of lockdown feel an indescribable ache to be someplace else, not just anywhere, somewhere nice and new and interesting. The German language already has a precise word for that aching far away feeling, and the German word has lately been been filling a void in the English language: Fernweh.

Fernweh isn’t just a case of “Get me out of here” or “Beam me up Scotty” or a desire to be nowhere at all, it’s a longing for faraway places that erase the ache and relieve the longing, and so the word is used in German travel adverts and even printed prominently on brands of activity clothing.

Can we translate Fernweh into English? Fern just means far away or remote and is used for distance learning, Fernstudium, and Weh means an ache or hurting sensation, such as Kopfweh, meaning headache, or Zahnweh, meaning toothache. Remote ache might mean what you feel when you can’t find the television remote control, remote pain might be an unwanted pressure from remote working or virtual interactions, and distance woe might mean being far from loved ones. Getlostfulness might work, while classic approximate translations in English include farsickness and longing for far off lands, with none so concise or evocative as the German term, hence the attraction of using the original in English. Escaping from home is at the essence of Fernweh as it is in fact the opposite of the German word Heimweh, or homesickness, perhaps recognisable to the many who have watched the German television series Heimat, which means home or homeland.

On a technical note, in English we might speak this word to sound like Fern Way, suggesting a sort of avenue of ferns or weighing station for crops of ferns, or a warning of a cargo of furs spilled on a road. German w is actually pronounced like English v, and in languages which struggle with w, or readily swap v and b as Spanish does, we might even find ourselves dreaming of a green and pleasant Fernbay. You can listen to the German pronunciation of Fernweh here.

So today we’ve added a full explanation of Fernweh to our growing list of German words used in English, reflecting the Zeitgeist and possibly addressing the ongoing Angst of frustrated Wanderlust.

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