Word of the Day


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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter


1. slightly sad because you want to have or to do something

2. used when you are thinking about something that made you happy in the past

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

Origin and usage

The adjective wistful originally meant ‘paying close attention’ and was first used in English in the mid 17th century. It was first used with the current meaning in the early 18th century. Its origin is uncertain: it does not derive from the obsolete noun ‘wist’ but may instead come from an obsolete adverb ‘wistly’, meaning ‘with close attention’ plus the suffix ‘-ful’.


If you are feeling wistful, you are feeling slightly sad, either because you want something you are unlikely to be able to have, or because you are thinking about a time in the past when you were happy, possibly but not necessarily happier than you are now. In such circumstances, you might do or say something wistfully, your tone or your expression making it obvious to others how you are feeling. Wistfulness is a very mild form of sadness; you can feel wistful without being dissatisfied about your current situation. The most significant noun collocate of wistful in the corpus is ‘sigh’, closely followed by others such as melancholy, yearning, longing and nostalgia. Reverie, recollection, reflection, reminiscence, remembrance and regret also feature, while the most frequent verbs are feel, look, seem, grow and turn. Wistfully, meanwhile, collocates with verbs such as gaze, smile, stare and sigh, suggesting that the feeling is one that we wish to share with others rather than keeping it to ourselves.


“It will all come back — the wasted splendor,
The heart’s lost youth like a breaking flower,
The dauntless dare, and the wistful, tender
Touch of the April hour.”
(Edwin Markham)

Related words

melancholy, nostalgic, subdued, downcast

Browse related words in the Macmillan Thesaurus.

About the author

Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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