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It seems I can't use "angst" anymore to refer to unspecified "philosophical anxiety about the world or personal freedom." (definition by Wordnet).

In a discussion with a friend - let's call him Abe - about a mutual friend - let's call him Doug - I wanted to express this exact idea, as in "I had coffee with Doug the other day. He sure seems filled with angst. Going on about life and the right decisions and all this stuff in the news that depresses him..."

So that's what I said, and Abe questioned my use of "angst," which led us on a race (friendly, for the most part) down the semantic rabbit hole.

Some definitions...

From The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Ed.:

(n) a feeling of anxiety or apprehension often accompanied by depression.

From Wordnet:

(n) an acute but unspecific feeling of anxiety; usually reserved for philosophical anxiety about the world or about personal freedom.

From Merriam-Webster online:

(n) a strong feeling of being worried or nervous : a feeling of anxiety about your life or situation.

From Google dictionary:

(n) a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general.

informal: a feeling of persistent worry about something trivial.

From the Free Dictionary online:

(n) a feeling of dread, anxiety, or anguish.

From Cambridge Dictionaries Online:

(n) strong worry and unhappiness, especially about personal problems.

There seems to be disagreement - at least among dictionary makers - about whether angst derives from anxiety about the state of the world (as I thought in my conversation with Abe) and our existence or from more trivial, less existential personal problems. And yes, I'm familiar with teenage angst, which could stem from all of these sources; teenage angst seems to have changed many of the primary connotations of angst, such that now many people believe angst is about listening to broody music and unwarranted adolescent self-pity. Much of this debate around the meaning of angst can be seen at Urban Dictionary (which I don't turn to as an authority but as a reasonable indicator of popular semantic disagreement).

Our rabbit hole led us to look at usage in media, which turns up headlines like these:

Expat Angst: The Stress of Going Home for the Holidays

GOP Angst Over 2016 Led to Provision on Funding

Angst over China's online lenders may be over the top

Ferrari 'Fleeing' Italy Prompts Angst About Losing Icons

Exploring the angst over football head trauma, onstage

Overcoming App Angst: How Procurement Can Avoid IP Issues

What strikes me about these (and thousands of other) examples is that they violate the "unspecific" element of many definitions of angst; indeed, angst is being tied directly to some problem or situation, appearing roughly synonymous with "worry," "concern," or "forlornness."

Q. Has the meaning of angst shifted?

Q. If "angst" now means (to most people) either a) pathetic adolescent navel-gazing, or b) "concern" or "fretfulness" because of some problem or situation, then what other word might I use to express "an acute but unspecific feeling of anxiety, particularly about the world in general and the human condition?"

  • Don't look to the popular media (at least not in the US) for correct grammar and usage. Unlike generations ago, they are notoriously illiterate. (If I have to read about another "flap" (mangled and distorted "flak") in one more headline, my head's gonna explode. – Oldbag Dec 26 '14 at 19:12
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    @Oldbag: though it would appear you share their taste for hyperbole... – Rusty Tuba Dec 26 '14 at 19:17
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    Angst (which any native speaker can tell is a borrowed word, and many will identify as German) can mean any of these things. "Meaning" doesn't work like a dictionary; meaning is a construction on the fly in a context. Definitions are not alive; language is. – John Lawler Dec 26 '14 at 19:18
  • @RustyTuba At least she didn't say "literally explode". – Spehro Pefhany Dec 26 '14 at 19:19
  • @John Lawler: I completely agree. But our dictionaries should reflect that living language (however slow to adapt they are); thus my question about whether dictionaries need to change their entries for this item. – Rusty Tuba Dec 26 '14 at 19:21
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I think that StoneyB's answer—that the meaning of angst "hasn't shifted so much as expanded" is the best answer you'll find to your first question.

As for what term best expresses "an acute but unspecific feeling of anxiety, particularly about the world in general and the human condition," my answer is: angst. Other possibilities suggest an element of abnormality ("spiritual malaise") or lawlessness ("anomie") or nonphilosophical clinical depression ("melancholy" or "brooding") or violence ("self-laceration"), or they take too long to explain (Pascal several times explores his own philosophical or spiritual unease in pensées under the heading "On the Disproportion of Man"—an idea that he may have drawn from Montaigne's comments about the incommensurability of God and human beings—but if you have to include a lengthy explanation of what you mean by a particular term, you might as well drop the term and go with the explanation, unless you plan to use it several times in the same conversation.


One way to frame angst so as to preserves its original, nonspecific sense of generalized unease or low-level dread is to package it as part of the compound angst-ridden. A Google Books search for "angst ridden" turns up some 75 matches for the term, all of which (at least arguably) appear to retain the generalized woe of the original, existential idea of angst. And among the matches are numerous mainstream periodicals such as Time magazine, The New Yorker, Here's a sampling.

From The New Yorker, volume 76 (2000) [snippet]:

The Violent Femmes. Though most people associate their angst-ridden acoustic punk with junior high, those lucky enough to have seen them in concert know that the Femmes (whose original incarnation was made up of Juilliard-educated musicians) is one of the best live bands of the past two decades.

From Film Review, issues 29–30 (2000):

[Anna] Paquin (best known for The Piano) has certainly matured enough to handle the angst-ridden teenager Rogue (if in doubt, see her impressive performance in Hurly Burly).

From Mademoiselle, volume 106 (2000):

A time of red-and-green traditions and petrified fruitcake, steeped in elves and angst-ridden impulse buys. Is there any season less sexy, with the possible exception of the walrus-mating season?

From TV Guide, volume 48 (2000) [text not visible in snippet view]:

[T]hey had a surfeit of angst-ridden hard-bodies on their schedule. "The show had these terrific characters, but they were spending too much time navel gazing against school lockers," says WB executive vice president of programming Jordan Levin.

From Time magazine, volume 48 (2000) [text not visible in snippet view]:

Smith took to writing short stories and poetry during an adolescence she describes as "pathologically angst ridden." She hasn't outgrown the angst: her manner is painfully serious, even defensive, despite the success of White Teeth, which she says "just kind of fell out of the sky."

Not all of these instances of "angst-ridden" seem especially well conceived, but all of them do seem to retain the "indefinite malaise" sense of angst. There is no guarantee, of course, that if you told Abe, "I had coffee with Doug the other day. He sure seems angst-ridden," that Abe wouldn't reply, "Oh yeah? About what?" But at least you are less likely to prompt a reaction such as "Oh, you mean he's angst-ridden about football head trauma again?"


By the way, I may be alone in this view, but I don't consider teenage angst a trivial and/or farcical debasing of mature, big-idea, Kiekegaardian/Heideggerian/Camusian existential angst. As I recall, it's just as deep, depressing, challenging, and (perhaps paradoxically) meaningful as the grown-up variety. As J. M. Spier, [Christianity and Existentialism] (1953) [combined snippets] puts it,

Now, the cardinal question in the philosophy of Heidegger is, "How can man pass from unauthentic Existence, which is primary, to the mode of being of authentic Existence?" The answer is that man is saved from unauthentic Existence by Angst. Angst must be sharply distinguished from fear. Fear is always the fear of something; it is brought about by an object. Angst in contrast is unspecified. It arises suddenly out of the depths of our Existence and surprises us without any apparent reason.

That is the very question that, in my experience, some teenagers consider cardinal; and (in the very way that Spier describes the process) many of them are—or hope to be—saved by angst as they struggle to reach a state of authentic existence.

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Yes the meaning has shifted, generalized, and, if you will, become "watered down". If you really want it to carry the original meaning, you now might want to preface it: "existential angst". The downside is that people who remember the original meaning will consider this a redundancy. So consider your audience.

  • Or, from the other pretentious tradition, angst neurosis. – StoneyB Dec 26 '14 at 23:57
  • It's pretty common for words to lose strength over time, due to overuse. Consider awesome and wonderful. – Barmar Dec 27 '14 at 0:44
  • Yes... a kind of semantic dilution. – Rusty Tuba Dec 27 '14 at 2:16
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    Could I throw in 'Weltschmerz' as an alternative that hasn't yet been watered down? – David Garner Dec 29 '14 at 16:42

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