Nostalgia is a word that was invented by Johannes Hofer, a Swiss medical student, in his 1688 dissertation titled “Medical Dissertation on Nostalgia.” He combined two Greek roots: nostos, or return home, plus algia, or suffering. So together we get homesickness–the common synonym for nostalgia in many dictionaries.
Commonly thought of as a yearning for the recent past, or homesickness due to present losses, nostalgia is a deceptively complex word that, like an umbrella, covers a wide range of personal and collective feelings about the collision between the past and the present. But nostalgia is also about the future, characterized by, especially, the tension between looking toward the past for traditional answers and looking toward the future for hope. The simultaneous presence of peculiarly modern forms of destabilization and recurrent desires for stabilization produces this tension.
Nostalgia helps frame the past in terms of present experience. Nostalgia illuminates the historical context of the actual and perceived loss of home. But what is more, when public pasts fuse with private feelings in stories of historical change (real or imagined stories), nostalgia informs and structures decision-making and ultimately it reconfigures identity. Nostalgia is not amnesia, but rather, it is a complex use of the past during present moments of crisis.