When Commodore Perry forced open American trade with Japan in the middle of the 1800′s, he brought along with him a translator by the name of Manjiro Nakahama. Manjiro had been shipwrecked off of Japan years earlier, picked up by whalers, and brought back to live in Massachusetts, where, he reported he learned, among other things, including English, how to read newspapers on the toilet (I’ve already looked, that quote isn’t on Wikipedia, but trust me on this one.) He became an crucial part of the trade negotiations, being the first Japanese person to visit America, and one of the few translators of the Edo tongue.
Now, following after John, as he was more frequently called, I was reading “The Voyages of Captain Cook”, which consists of extracts from his journals, when I came across a pretty interesting quotation:
‘Emerging from Endeavour Straight, Cook sailed north-west until he fell in with the coast of New Guinea. The decision to make for Java was welcomed by all on board, of whom the greater part, says Banks, “were now pretty far gone with the longing for home which the physicians have gone so far as to esteem a disease under the name of Nostalgia” – the earliest recorded use of the word.’
This was written in 1770, which means the word ‘nostalgia’ is a pretty recent neologism. It comes from the Greek ‘nostos’ meaning return, and ‘algos’ meaning suffering. I was hoping it might come from ‘naus’ meaning ship, having something to do with sailing, or perhaps to do with algae, of which the portion of the Atlantic called the Sargasso Sea was rife to the point of becalming ships for days, but alas, those would be false etymologies. But in fact there is a whole section of Greek literature called the Nostoi, about Odysseus (and others) coming home from Troy, in the Homeric tradition. This word, and it’s origins, have also been noted at length by Kundera, I’m told – but what I wonder is if there was enough time in the intervening years for Manjiro Nakahama to have learned it before he headed back to Japan in 1850. It probably would have been particularly relevant to him.