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Schadenfreude

The word suffers from overuse, in my opinion. Its fluid application to everyday life is a disease. (And I’m not sure which irritates me more: the fact that there are countless opportunities for one to claim Schadenfreude or that the word Schadenfreude so effortlessly captures one’s glee in others’ discomfort.) This love-hate relationship with the German compound may seem odd, but I’m probably not alone. Lately, I’ve heard evidence that Schadenfreude* proves as repulsive as it is seductive to word-nerds everywhere. Ben Zimmer wrote an amusing explanation of Schadenfreude and its burgeoning popularity. His post was published in September of last year on the Oxford UP blog:

Part of the appeal of the word Schadenfreude is that it is simultaneously exotic yet familiar. The German predilection for forming compound words has long fascinated English speakers, and Schadenfreude, composed of Schaden ‘harm’ + Freude ‘joy,’ joins many other imported German compounds, like zeitgeist (Zeit ‘time’ + Geist ’spirit’) and Weltanschauung (Welt ‘world’ + Anschauung ‘view’). In last year’s National Spelling Bee, the winner correctly spelled Ursprache (Ur- ‘original’ + Sprache ‘language’), while the second-place contestant tripped over another Germanism, Weltschmerz (Welt ‘world’ + Schmerz ‘pain’). But even though Schadenfreude looks and sounds distinctly German, it refers to a feeling that we’re all familiar with, often guiltily recognized in our own less-than-sympathetic reaction to the plight of fellow human beings.

Though the Oxford English Dictionary has examples in English from the late nineteenth century onwards, usage of Schadenfreude has bubbled up in recent years, particularly in online political discourse. In the blogosphere, Schadenfreude inevitably breaks down on party lines, with Democrats exulting in the shortcomings of prominent Republicans and vice versa. In such politicized contexts, references to Schadenfreude aren’t necessarily made in shameful self-recognition but rather often serve as a way of happily identifying the group glee in the humiliation of a public figure, particularly when there’s a juicy scandal in the air (as in the latest round of Schadenfreude surrounding disgraced Idaho Senator Larry Craig).

One measure of the growing popularity of Schadenfreude is the manner in which the word has spawned new offshoots. For instance, Slate columnist Daniel Gross coined Bushenfreude, which he defined as the “weird mix of confusion, annoyance, exhilaration, and anger” felt by rich Democrats profiting from President Bush’s tax cuts. In the New York Times, Alessandra Stanley defined blondenfreude as “the glee felt when a rich, powerful, and fair-haired business woman stumbles.” Howard Dean’s misfortunes in the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries inspired Deanenfreude, while Jonah Goldberg of the National Review has admitted to Frankenfreude, or “a state of restrained glee at the failures or setbacks of Al Franken.”

These new varieties of Schadenfreude demonstrate that the original word is now so common that just the last segment of it, -(en)freude, is enough to evoke the meaning of the full form. Thus it’s joined such productive combining forms as -holic, -tacular, -thon, and -nomics, as described in my recent column, “A Poptastic Geekfest for Infoholics.” What’s also notable is that these new blended forms don’t really bother with the original German combination of Schaden + Freude. The crucial ‘grief’ component, Schaden, usually gets left out, though Caitlin Moran of The Times has proposed the timely terms Schadenblogging and Schadengoogling. (For more along these lines, see my Language Log post, “Googlefreude, Googleschaden, Schadengoogle…”)

I’ve been studying up on Schadenfreude in order to avoid inappropriately liberal use of the word. A.J. Meier discusses its English translation and usage in his article, “Study of ‘Foreign Words’ in English.” But his qualifications weren’t as helpful to this stateside resident who has yet to observe the Viennese subway system:

The most frequent equivalents are gloating and malicious glee, the latter of which approaches a literal translation of the two morphemes in Schadenfreude (‘damage’ and ‘joy’, i.e., a feeling of joy when harm or discomfort comes to another). The almost institutionalized character of the word is aptly embodied in the particular expression which crosses the face of those witnessing someone being apprehended for not having a ticket in the Viennese subway…However, neither English gloating nor malicious glee quite captures the meaning. The context of usage again plays a significant role.

Denotative qualms aside, my general distaste for the word is rooted in its connotation rather than its definition. (Less noble, I know.) I can’t stand the squirmy feeling that steals up my spine when I catch myself participating in a little, private Schadenfreude. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not tortured by the feeling every waking moment. But this week’s been a doozy:

  • I played catch-up on an episode of The Office. It was very, very awkward to watch.
  • The Russian Market had blackberries for a decent price. I decided to splurge. P.’s disappointment was acute when he discovered they were seeded. (I had no idea one could purchase “unseeded” blackberries.) So I finished them by myself…
  • Since P. dominates the board games, last night’s game round resembled an unabashed thwart-fest in which each game player attempted to destroy P.’s chances at victory. Thoroughly enjoyable, I’m afraid.
  • After re-parking (I’m always changing my mind on the ideal parallel parking spot), I heard a loud crash and discovered, with some relief, that the vehicle sitting in my former spot had been rear-ended by morning traffic, pushed up onto the sidewalk, and wrapped around a pole.
  • Two nights ago I was thrilled to learn that while the monitor had arrived, the tower and computer game had not, so we decorated the tree in lieu of applying software.

Ironically, most of my modest examples of Schadenfreude don’t fit the contextual definition of that pesky German word, even if the “feeling” of Schadenfreude can be connected to each experience. I tend to use the word to describe a situation in which I receive benefit or take refuge in others’ misfortune. And even if that is a denotative stretch, my principled dislike of the “word picture” stands.

By grace, it is resolved: less Schadenfreude, more Freude.

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* In the study “Status of ‘Foreign Words’ in English: The Case of Eight German Words,” A. J. Meier notes that, despite its popularity, Schadenfreude still retains visible markers as a “foreign word.” For one, we still italicize it, a customary indication of a word’s alien origins. Second, we tend to capitalize the word, following the German precedent of capitalizing nouns. So while we may apply Schadenfreude with fetishistic consistency to daily life, we are not necessarily “naturalizing” it yet. (Unlike the word, Angst, which is laughable when it appears both capitalized and italicized on a page.)

One Response to “Schadenfreude

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