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Fun With Angst

I have missed you, dear readers! Consumed recently by dry academic writing and a period of personal angst, the details of which are positively soap operatic, I have waited for time and inspiration to reconnect with you. I waffled as to whether to write something gloomy, since I have been feeling thus, or something cheerful, because a cheerful, educational and entertaining outlook on language and literature is this blog's goal.

Gloomy or cheerful? I find myself, as many do, at a fork in the road: do this or that? Go this way or that way? Well. As the wise philosopher Yogi Berra once said, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." So here we are: fun with angst.

Together with love, nature, death and religion, existential suffering is a common theme in literature. Angst does not mean serious depression, à la Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway. Nor is angst associated with concrete tragedy or suffering. Angst is, according to Webster's Dictionary, "a feeling of anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general." And really, who among us does not enjoy the occasional wallow in angst? Teenagers are particularly prone to angst. You may remember (or perhaps it would be better if you didn't) an angst-ridden couplet by my thirteen-year-old self, that I shared with you in an earlier blog post: "To want, to need, in the heart, in the soul/A bottomless, endless, deep, black hole." Mercifully for the world of poetry, this young woman's teen-aged angst passed, and her poems improved.

Angst is not quite the same as fear, anxiety, dread or depression, though it is composed of bits of these, and is related and often tied to them in the context of post-war existential philosophy. Existentialism explores "the problem of human existence," according to Jean Paul Sartre, the title of whose most famous philosophical work was Being and Nothingness. It doesn't get much gloomier than that. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard talked about a type of anxiety that arises in response to nothing in particular; the sense of nothingness itself, a fact of the human condition. This is angst, also expressed gloomily in existentialist literature by writers like Albert Camus. By the mid-1970s existentialist literature had thankfully become something of a cliché, parodied in more light-hearted books and in films by Woody Allen.

Most of us seem to experience periods of angst, the pointlessness of life, and blah, blah, blah. Let's have some fun now.

As we in this blog have found so often, fun can be found in a word itself. Say this word aloud. Angst. Do it again. Say it five times. Jump up and down while saying it. Just doing that dispels angst! And what kind of spelling is this, anyway? Four consonants strung together, introduced by one flimsy vowel. Come on. Who does that? Where does this word come from?

Hint: Who loves to string many syllables together, often including multiple consonants, and call them words? Of course, the fun-loving Germans. The longest word in German, which is recognized also in Dutch, is Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung. It means motor vehicle liability insurance. That one has a five- letter consonant string, ftpfl. Of course, Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung is hyphenated, so perhaps that disqualifies it. We'll go with betäubungsmittelverschreibungsverordnung, which means the regulation requiring a prescription for an anesthetic. German's rules of grammatical construction lend themselves easily to tacking on parts of this and that to make single words stretch across a page. Mark Twain commented that "Some German words are so long that they have perspective." Trying to say many German words even once, never mind five times, may actually cause angst. Do not try this at home.

Angst is also a South German and Swiss German family name, apparently originating in a topographic term from Middle High German, "angest," meaning "narrowness," "a narrow place." This resonates interestingly with the feeling of angst, which certainly gives one a narrow and restricted perspective on life. Kind of a weird name to be saddled with, too. Guten tag, Herr Angst. How are you feeling today? Snicker.

The first known use of the word angst in English was in 1872. Its mainstream introduction into English was in the early 20th century, through English translations of Freud's German writings. The word's root is hypothesized as being the Proto-Indo-European root "angh," meaning tight or painfully constricted. This root is said to have spawned other words like anxiety, anger, anguish and angina.

Another fun fact about the word angst is that is one of those rare nouns that has no verb, adjective or adverb (though the extremely questionable "angsty" has cropped up in modern, lazy, language). Angst-ridden is the closest we can come to an adjective, and that's cheating. In terms of a verb, while one can certainly wallow in angst, one can't actually angst. One must wallow. Even the word angst is lonely, having no grammatical companions with which to contemplate the futility of it all. This seems fitting.

No wallowers we, dear readers. L'chaim, to life!

Till next time.

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