English has many words for the feelings that can arise when a good, hard look at the state of the world seems to reveal only negatives. Hopelessness, despair, depression, discouragement, melancholy, sorrow, worry, disconsolation, distress, anxiety … there are so many that it would hardly seem necessary to borrow any more from other languages. But English never hesitates to borrow words that would lose certain subtleties in translation, and angst, ennui, and weltschmerz have made their way into English by offering a little something extra. Have you got a case of one of these imported maladies? Here’s a guide to help you diagnose.
Angst is the word for fear in German, Dutch, and Danish. It comes from the same Indo-European root (meaning “tight, constricted, painful”) that gave us anguish, anxiety, and anger. In the mid-19th century, it became associated with a specific kind of existential dread through the work of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. He talked about a type of anxiety that arises in response to nothing in particular, or the sense of nothingness itself. It’s not exactly fear, and not the same as worry, but a simple fact of the human condition, a feeling that disrupts peace and contentment for no definable reason.
The word was adopted into English after Sigmund Freud used it as a term for generalized anxiety. Now it carries shades of philosophical brooding mixed with a dash of psychoanalytic, clinical turmoil. While anxiety and angst are often interchangeable, anxiety foregrounds a feeling of suffering (also present in angst), while angst foregrounds dissatisfaction, a complaint about the way the world is.
Are you dissatisfied and worried in an introspective, overthinking German way? You’ve got angst.
Ennui is the French word for boredom. The English word annoy comes from an early, 13th century borrowing of the word, but it was borrowed again during the height of 18th century European Romanticism, when it stood for a particular, fashionable kind of boredom brought on by weariness with the world. Young people at that time, feeling that the promises of the French Revolution had gone unfulfilled, took on an attitude of lethargic disappointment, a preoccupation with the fundamental emptiness of existence. Nothing mattered, so nothing roused the passions.
By the middle of the 19th century, ennui became associated with the alienation of industrialization and modern life. Artists and poets suffered from it, and soon a claim to ennui was a mark of spiritual depth and sensitivity. It implied feelings of superiority and self-regard, the idea being that only bourgeois people too deluded or stupid to see the basic futility of any action could be happy. Now, in English, though it is defined as “a feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction,” ennui also has connotations of self-indulgent posturing and European decadence.
Are you tired, so tired of everything about the world and the way it is? Do you proclaim this, with a long, slow sigh, to everyone around you? You’ve got ennui.
Weltschmerz, German for “world pain,” was also coined during the Romantic era, and is in many ways the German version of ennui. It describes a world weariness felt from a perceived mismatch between the ideal image of how the world should be with how it really is.
In German philosophy, it was distinguished from pessimism, the idea that there is more bad than good in the world, because while pessimism was the logical conclusion of cool, rational philosophical pondering, weltschmerz was an emotional response. Though weltschmerz and ennui are pretty close synonyms, ennui foregrounds the listlessness brought on by world weariness (it can also be a term for more simple boredom), and weltschmerz foregrounds the pain or sadness. There is perhaps a greater sense of yearning in weltschmerz (part of the pain is that the sufferer really wants the world to be otherwise). Also, as an English word, weltschmerz isn’t as common as ennui, so there are fewer connotations about the type of person that comes down with it. Its very German sound (that “schm”!) makes it seem more serious and grim than ennui.
Do you have sadness in your heart for the world that can never be—and sensible shoes? You’ve got weltschmerz.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2023.