Many people in the English-speaking world are familiar with the German expression Angst, which has wended its way into American pop culture and the American psyche. Woody Allen, in his most marvelous neurotic moments captured on film, could conceivably, for instance, be suffering from angst regarding all manner of situations, as does the neurotic comedian and Seinfeld co-creator Larry David on his HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Yet there is a much darker, more disturbing cousin to angst – which literally means “fear” in German, but generally connotes a down-and-out state of mind in a broader sense – known as Weltschmerz. Derived from the words Welt (world) and Schmerz (pain), it literally means something along the lines of “world grief” or “world weariness.”
The German Romantic writer Jean Paul, or Johann Paul Friedrich Richter (1763-1825), is credited with first coining the term “Weltschmerz” in his pessimistic novel Selina (1827) to describe Lord Byron’s discontent.
As explained by the Encyclopedia Britannica, this expression sought to define “the prevailing mood of melancholy and pessimism associated with the poets of the Romantic era that arose from their refusal or inability to adjust to those realities of the world that they saw as destructive of their right to subjectivity and personal freedom – a phenomenon thought to typify Romanticism.”
Also cited in various North American dictionaries as weltschmerz (and pronounced VELT-shmerts), it is literally used to express pessimism, apathy, or sadness felt at the difference between physical reality and an ideal state – a kind of anomie, as the French might put it.
“I hate being told to have a good time! I’ll feel the weltschmerz if I want to,” Canadian freelance writer Mari Sasano, for instance, is quoted as saying in the Edmonton Journal on December 3, 2005 at wordsmith.org.
Yet weltschmerz is surely cited far less often than “angst” in mainstream North American pop culture. One exception is a scene in the hit US TV show “The Big Bang Theory”, in which a cerebral character named Sheldon comforts his friend and roommate Leonard by citing the German expression “Weltschmerz” to describe how he is feeling.