Popular tradition relates saudade to the feeling of distance and loss suffered by the families of men off at sea during the age of Portuguese discoveries. While this folk history captures the term’s poetic ambivalence, its etymology is unclear. The archaic form soidade appears in 13th-century troubadour verses recounting the laments of distant lovers. Most scholars suggest that this form derives from the Latin solitate (solitude), and was possibly later influenced by the Portuguese word saudar (‘to greet’) before arriving at the present form. But some scholars have offered alternative etymologies, including one that traces saudade to the Arabic sawdā, a word that can denote a dark or melancholy mood. It is a high-stakes debate: saudade is integral to Portuguese self-understanding, and the question of the word’s origins reflects deeper concerns about Portuguese ethnicity and identity.
Saudosismo, an early 20th-century literary movement, was largely responsible for establishing saudade as a marker of Portuguese identity. Founded two years after the 1910 republican revolution that ended a centuries-long monarchy, Saudosismo promised cultural renewal during a time of uncertainty. In ‘The Making of Saudade’ (2000), the Portuguese anthropologist João Leal writes that Saudosistas sought to restore the ‘lost splendour’ of Portuguese cultural life, ‘replacing foreign influences – held to be responsible for the decline of the country since the Age of Discoveries – with a cult of “Portuguese things”, reflecting the true “Portuguese soul”.’ Hailing saudade as the authentic expression of the ‘Lusitanian spirit’, the movement put the emotion at the cult’s centre.
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