Thursday, October 20th, 2011
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A Joyful & Malicious History Of 'Schadenfreude'

In an interview with Martha Stewart shortly before her 2003 indictment, Jeffrey Toobin asked the visibly exhausted celebrity if she felt herself the victim of “schadenfreude.” He didn't expand upon the Germanism, and Stewart certainly didn't need it defined.

Schadenfreude? I asked. “That's the word,” she said. “I hear that, like, every day.” And she added, in her precise way, “Do you know how to spell it?”

While spelling the thing might be an issue, writers assume nowadays that when they say “schadenfreude,” readers know exactly what they mean. It’s defined as the “malicious enjoyment of the misfortunes of others” in the OED, which first included the word in 1982. The online OED traces key appearances of “schadenfreude” in English publications, the earliest of which is found in philologist Richard Chenevix Trench’s 1852 meditation on language, Study of Words. Trench's citation is mostly a lament. Words such as "schadenfreude," he remarks, reflect a degraded moral interiority: "… what a fearful thing is it that any language should have a word expressive of the pleasure which men feel at the calamities of others; for the existence of the word bears testimony to the thing."

While Trench lists other examples of words that express the “pleasure which men feel at the calamities of others” (in Greek and also Latin), only the German version has entrenched itself in the English lexicon. And it's not the only Germanism to do so—what might be surprising, though, is just how recently and rapidly such Germanisms have entered the American vocabulary. As we’ll see, while schadenfreude's use in English texts begins in the mid-1800s, it only started making regular appearances in the past three decades. (As I type, Microsoft Word does not recognize “Germanism” as a word, but it does accept “schadenfreude.”) So you might as well learn how to spell it, since Deutsch is, apparently, the way we talk about our feelings now.

In a 2009 After Deadline post titled "The Age of Schadenfreude," Times deputy news editor Philip B. Corbett observed:

Here’s an amazing fact: In 1980, according to our archive, the word “schadenfreude” did not appear in The New York Times. Not once.

This may seem hard to believe, since as a reader recently pointed out, we now appear to be living in the Golden Age of Schadenfreude. […]

In 1985, there was exactly one Times use of “schadenfreude,” in a Safire “On Language” column. In 1990, three uses, including one by an actual German. By 1995, we’re up to seven instances, still within reasonable limits for those who prefer their English mostly in English.

But the number begins to creep up in the late ’90s, then leaps to 28 in 2000. A brief decline in 2001, then another surge, to a record 40 uses in 2004. […]

So what’s with all the joy in pain? Is it something in the zeitgeist (62 uses in 2008, by the way)? Or is it just another verbal fad?

The Ngram for 'schadenfreude' corroborates Corbett’s observations:

While such statistics gesture toward an increase in the word’s use, they don’t explain the impetus behind its popularity.

Thomas Pynchon published his German-focused novel Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973 (back when 'schadenfreude' was nowhere to be found on the pages of the Times). While the text leaves many Germanisms undefined (Hexeszüchtigung, Wandervogel, Bürgerlichkeit, Brockengespenstphänomen), Pynchon nonetheless felt compelled to translate schadenfreude: “Like Adolf Hitler, Springer is easily tickled by what the Germans call Schadenfreude, the feeling of joy at another’s misfortune.” Pynchon presents schadenfreude as a malicious trait that's specifically German, one that has no English equivalent if only, to borrow Trench’s words, because the English “moral and spiritual condition” has yet a need to express itself in such terms. As the Spectator put it in 1926: “There is no English word for Schadenfreude, because there is no such feeling here.”

Such logic no longer holds up. We use the word a lot—most often in relation to celebrities (Sasha Frere-Jones once titled a post on Beyoncé simply “Schadenfreude”) and athletic events (the combination of competitive aggression and the likelihood of physical injury is probably to blame). Broadway is fertile grounds for the cultivation of schadenfreudistic sentiments. Michael Schulman’s New Yorker review of Julie Taymor’s 2011 production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark opens with the line: “New Yorkers excel at Schadenfreude.” Modulations of the word are also popular: You all remember Franzenfreude, of course? It was its own Twitter hashtag.

That feeling for when you come across a German word that signifies a human emotion mordantly paradoxical, and oh-so-human all at once? There ought to be a German word for that. Indeed, while the entire concept of the long-German-word-to-efficiently-express-complex-emotions has itself become a cliché, we continue to desire Germanisms that don't yet exist. Just a few days ago, this gem popped up on my Twitter feed:

What's the long German word for posting a tweet that's out of sync with the predominant mood and subject matter of the tweetstream?
Oct 16 via webFavoriteRetweetReply

Earlier this year, The Hairpin catalogued “German Words for Gchat-related Psychoemotional States,” while on this site, Balk has begun his own wish list for expressions to capture such emotions, to give one example, as "that sudden and jarring juxtaposition of feelings you experience when you finally realize that something you were certain was a parodic mash-up turns out to be absolutely sincere."

Websites such as The Neologist help people discover “the soothing power of the German compound noun” with words like Palmenbepflanztes Immobiliengefängnisn (palm-begrowthed real-estate prison) and wahlunfruchtbar (infertile by choice). And on. And on.

Many websites dedicated to Germanisms exist. Of course, websites on many, many topics exist—still, it makes sense that this particular language niche would hold a special interest to people who spend a lot of time on the Internet. The distance inherent in online interaction is perhaps conducive to the projective and prescriptive quality of Germanisms—where rigid words encapsulate elaborate feelings.

Cultural criticism on the infiltration of German words into English jargon emphasizes Germany’s role in the two World Wars: Did Germanisms emerge from the collective consciousness of a country seen, especially in the last century, as one full of complicated emotions? Scholarly research has taken up the matter. Jordan Finkin’s article “The Poetics of Schadenfreude” explores how post-Holocaust Yiddish poetry played on the “constraints and connotations […] of the German language and of the Germanic component in light of the Holocaust” for new poetic possibilities—a co-opting of the aggressor’s language. Many of the examples of “schadenfreude,” in the OED, after all, include Germany as the object of such sadism, with people rejoicing in the country's post-war status. To feel schadenfreude is to drawn a line between you and me—to separate your pain from my joy. The country that first articulated the perverse feeling of “schadenfreude” finds itself, in other languages, on its receiving end.

During the interwar year of 1920, Frederick Hamilton emphasized the philosophical distance between Germany and Britain:

The particular sentiment described in German as “Schadenfreude,” “pleasure over another's troubles” (how characteristic it is that there should be no equivalent in any other language for this peculiarly Teutonic emotion!), makes but little appeal to the average Briton.

By leaving Germanisms untranslated, one always points to the sentiment expressed by the word as fundamentally and even organically German. My favorite, “Vergangenheitsbewältigung,” means roughly to overcome or to come to terms with the past. The word is most frequently used in speaking about the Holocaust. Overcoming the burden of history is not a sentiment singular to any one nation, but focusing on its hyper-specific idiomatic expression in German makes this overcoming specific to Germany. “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” always refers back to its land of origin, reminding us of Germany’s associations and actions with regard to two World Wars.

Part of the reason we fixate on Germany is certainly social, but also linguistic: the German semantic structure lends itself to the invention of compound words. In Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon notes “the German mania for name-giving, dividing the Creation finer and finer, analyzing, setting namer more hopelessly apart from named.” Naming is not only a form of identification or labeling, but also of creation. To the eye, mouth, and ear, capacious German words seem to embody and externalize the weight of difficult emotions.

Yet German compound words are as strikingly direct as they are metaphysical. German poet and translator Paul Celan observes that German, “for all its inalienable complexity of expression, is concerned with precision. It does not transfigure, does not ‘poetize,’ it names and posits, it tries to measure the realm of the given and the possible.” “Schadenfreude,” after all, is comprised of “Schaden” (harm) and “Freude” (joy), while “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” links “Vergangenheit” (past) with “Bewältigung” (overcoming). Germanisms are direct and clear, yet, from the perspective of an outsider, visually and sonically convoluted; this allows us to use them with a sense of amused detachment. We borrow their sentiments with a self-consciousness that seems to say, "we don’t really own these complex dispositions, nor take responsibility for their proliferation."



Jane Hu is our official correspondent for very recent history.

38 Comments / Post A Comment

johnpseudonym (#1,452)

Schadenfreude is such a jerry-built word.

Missy Y.@twitter (#163,459)

I always assumed it blew up because it was used on The Simpsons? That's the first place I ever heard it!

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@Missy Y.@twitter He's usually all happy and comfortable, and surrounded by loved ones, and it makes me feel… What's the opposite of that shameful joy thing of yours?

metoometoo (#230)

@Missy Y.@twitter For me it was Avenue Q.

@boyofdestiny I think you're thinking of gemütlichkeit

Missy Y.@twitter (#163,459)

@boyofdestiny sour grapes?

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

@Missy Y.@twitter Wiki says that episode aired on October 3, 1991, so that kinda makes sense.

daemonsquire (#9,523)

One of my favorite Germanisms (maybe too obvious for mention in this column?) also happens, I think, to describe a particularly Balkian characteristic: weltschmerz

daemonsquire (#9,523)

Ergh, what's the German word for the feeling you get when you walk into a party with a shiny new-to-you toy, and find that everyone else not only already has had it (forever), but they've rooted and modded it into far better, more worldly, infinitely hipper toys? Like that time I brought weltschmerz to a build-your-own schmerz party…

emberglance (#7,305)

Let us not overlook Gluckschmerz, meaning a sense of sorrow at the good fortunes of others. :-( to schadenfreude's :-).

@emberglance but we have an English word for that: hatin'.

grandpa27 (#804)

We don't usually in english (except James Joyce who was famous for combining or making one out of two) put together two words to make one. Sadistic joy gets the idea across without the pedantic use of foreign expressions which require stups (or is that stoops) like me to take a trip to the dictionary. Interiority" (inner character or nature; subjectivity) is another pedantic effort to complicate a simple state of mind.

WaityKatie (#79,377)

@grandpa27 But doesn't sadistic joy imply that you are the one causing the pain? Schadenfreude is usually enjoyed from the position of a spectator to the pain.

SeanP (#4,058)

@grandpa27 Normally I'm pretty sympathetic to this line of argument – it drives me bananas, for example, when people use "qua" when "as" would do nicely. There really is a tendency to use these complex expressions to show off.

But schadenfreude? Surely that's so thoroughly entered English that there's no elitism there? And you have to admit that it's a lot more compact than "joy at the misfortune of others".

kolk (#3,846)

"wahlunfruchtbaradj" should be "wahlunfruchtbar," which is an adj. great article!

Carrie Frye (#9,863)

@kolk Ah, danke! Corrected now.

becky@twitter (#14,213)

fuck you, lady, that's what stairs are for.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

"I can find, thank God, no German word to express perfide in its full range. Our humble treulos is an innocent child by comparison. Perfide is treulos with the addition of enjoyment, contemptuous pride and Schadenfreude."

– Aurelie in Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre

zybhjk (#22,746)

probably a good opportunity for posting this essay:

http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/awfgrmlg.html

Twain on the (monstrosities) of German.

joythemanatee (#163,886)

@zybhjk Yes! This essay is excellent, and I say this as a native German speaker.

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

There is no German word better than backpfeifengeseicht.

Raybert (#164,355)

@Ham_Snadwich
Sorry to be pedantic, but it's "Backpfeifengesicht". There is no such word as "Geseicht".

Backpfeife = a slap to ones face.

Backpfeifengesicht = someone whose very looks makes you want to slap him around.
Also: someone who obviously already has been slapped around a lot.

Backe = cheek (technically on your bottom, but in colloquial use also on your face).

Gesicht = face.

Seicht = shallow.

joythemanatee (#163,886)

The arguement for why there is no word for Schadenfreude in English is just rubbish: "As the Spectator put it in 1926: “There is no English word for Schadenfreude, because there is no such feeling here.”

Oh really? So what exactly is it you're laughing at when watching one of Charlie Chaplin's black and white movies? Y'know, the British actor (1889-1927) falling and tripping and basically just (lightly) hurting himself to make his audience laugh. THAT is Schadenfreude.

joythemanatee (#163,886)

@joythemanatee Ack! 1977. But it won't let me edit. Point still stands though.

Raybert (#164,355)

@joythemanatee
I couldn't agree more. If there was no such thing/feeling as schadenfreude, tabloid 'newspapers' would not exist.

hideously (#118,908)

How many uses for "zeitgeist"?

SeanP (#4,058)

I just about fell over when I read this part: "still within reasonable limits for those who prefer their English mostly in English."

ORLY. English is only about 40% in English to start with – most of the rest is French, with liberal admixtures of languages as varied as proto-Swedish (skull, sky…) , Hindi and other languages of the subcontinent (why, just today I pulled a chit out of the pocket of my khakis, then changed into madras shorts), various American Indian languages (I nearly ran over a raccoon on the way to work this morning).

If you kept strictly to using English that's in English, you'd barely be able to speak at all.

grandpa27 (#804)

@SeanP schadenfreude still foreign to me. I don't get it and when the dictionary makes it clear, I scratch my head and say to myself,"Why." I have the same problem with zeitgeist and paradigm. To me it is needless obfuscation.

grandpa27 (#804)

@SeanP gemütlichkeit is another one that I skipped over because it never made sense.

Raybert (#164,355)

@grandpa27
Yeah, well, I guess you have to be, like, German to feel, understand and appreciate gemütlichkeit.
You know, like the Norwegians and "hyggelig".

anthropomo (#10,734)

Won't some please address the issue of the terminal e? In German we use all the letters.

If, as the anti-elitists above seem to insist, this is not yet an English word, why the very English, very stupid pronunciation?

SeanP (#4,058)

@anthropomo also: "gestalt". There is nothing that sounds like a "j" in there.

SeanP (#4,058)

And then there's der Vogelsschaeme. (apologies, I can't seem to produce an umlaut)

Kay Capone@facebook (#168,063)

I read the article and it shows well how Germanisms take place in other languages. It shows only how flexible a language can react to find shorter expressions (one word) for a situation.

My favorite Germanism is 'Doppelgänger' in English!

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