Saudade is a Portuguese word. Its meaning is so complex that cannot be translated into one single word. It has a notoriously complicated definition which can be difficult to explain. There is no English word that it translates to, instead, we use entire phrases, to sum up, its depth.
Saudade is often thought to be a kind of nostalgia, but even that isn’t quite right to describe this profound emotion. When you feel saudade, you are experiencing a deep and profound emotion. This emotion is more akin to yearning, pining and longing.
The correct version of saudade defines it as a desire for something that once was. It combines the sadness for something that has gone, whilst still being happy as you think of the memories.
For example, you would feel saudade for a loved one who has passed away. You would experience a deep sense of sadness at their loss and long for their return. However, you might also be experiencing happy moments as you fondly remember the good times you shared.
Simply put, it is a combination of sadness and happiness directed towards something you wish would come back. Sadness for the loss, happiness for the memories, or thoughts of what could have been.
Saudade and Its Origins
Like most words, saudade gets its roots from Latin. Ancient versions of the word can be loosely translated to “solitude”. It wasn’t until the 13th-15th centuries when the word developed its modern meaning in Portugal.
During the Great Portuguese Discoveries, men would be sent off on ships to discover new territories and wage wars for possession. Their wives, children and loved ones would be left behind. As the men sailed off around the globe, their families would pine for their return.
It wasn’t uncommon for the men to go missing in action. This left their grieving families uncertain if they were dead or alive. Saudade is a word perfectly designed to describe the loss they felt.
The country experienced a phase of melancholy among its people. Those left behind would dream with the hope of their return, sometimes naively. They wallowed in the sadness that came from missing their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons.
Joy, however, was also in the mix. The people of Portugal were proud of the achievements their men were making. They remembered fondly the times they had with the men who had left. Their loved ones also tried to stay optimistic about the times they would have after they returned home and the golden age their discoveries would bring to Portugal. The only way to sum this up was “saudade.”
In the 20th century, this feeling had a resurgence amongst the Portuguese people. As emigration to America and the rest of Europe became popular, so did this confusing emotion.
People who had moved away to start new lives felt saudade for the home they had left behind. They fondly remembered their home country and the people in it. They often longed to be back there, though they knew they had to stay.
The new countries they settled in were strange and made them wistful for the familiar safety of Portugal again. As the Portuguese started to describe this feeling as saudade to the people in their new countries, the word started to spread.
Saudade Versus Nostalgia
Though nostalgia is the closest the English language gets to saudade, it’s still not quite the same. Nostalgia is a feeling you get when you feel happy thinking of the past.
We get nostalgic for our childhoods because they were joyful and carefree. We feel nostalgic for old television shows or even music because they remind us of those good times. Saudade is more closely connected to sadness. It is a sense of longing or yearning for the past.
Saudade can also apply to more than nostalgia ever could. You can feel it for people, places, phases of life and even things that never happened at all. Unlike nostalgia, which is a joyful memory and even wishful return of the past, saudade can be theoretical.
So, How Does It Feel?
Saudade can be felt for things that never happened at all, like longing for “the one that got away”. In this case, you would be feeling a deep sadness from missing them and wishing they would be back in your life. You might also feel a sense of happiness when you consider what could have been and the good moments you could have had.
Saudade can also come on pre-emptively. Imagine your last summer before leaving for college (even hypothetically). The emotions you feel are a complicated mix of sadness and happiness. Your heart might ache, thinking of how much you’ll miss your home and friends.
You might also feel happiness, for all the good times you’ve had. Somehow, this happiness could also make you feel more sadness when you consider all that you’ll be losing. This complicated mix of emotions sums up exactly what defines saudade.
In 1912, Aubrey Bell, a Scholar, and Author tried to summarize this in his book In Portugal. It became one of the most renowned descriptions of this untranslatable word:
“a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future.”
This tells us even more that saudade is a nostalgia for something that could have been, not just something you’ve lost. Next time you’re yearning for what was or what could have been, know there is a word for how you feel. Saudade will put a face to the complicated emotions of a bittersweet feeling of loss.
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Reminds me of the word, “Sehnsucht” in German.