The Joy (and Sorrow) of “Schadenfreude”
What’s your favorite word? On Wordie.org, a website launched last year by John McGrath, you can post lists of “words you love, words you hate, whatever.” So far, about 4,800 users (“Wordies”) have posted a total of 264,000 words, 90,000 of which are unique. In this efflorescence of logophilia, what word strikes the fancy of the most Wordies? Topping the list of the “most wordied” words is schadenfreude, submitted by 250 users. This German loanword, defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary as “pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune,” easily outpaces runners-up like quixotic, serendipity, loquacious, and plethora. (If defenestrate and defenestration joined forces, that handy term for throwing someone out a window would come in a close second.) What does it say about Web-savvy language lovers that the word they find most notable describes malicious mirth in the misery of others? Are we all just a bunch of sadists?
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…”)
Fittingly, the Wordie comments on Schadenfreude reflect a range of conflicting emotions. “Terminally overused, but what a great word! Truly captures that common, base feeling,” says one. “Why take pleasure in this word / other people’s suffering?” asks another poignantly. As long as we wallow in this “primal pleasure,” as one commenter calls it, we can expect the word Schadenfreude to maintain its ability to delight and disgust.
Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here.