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Sweet, sweet schadenfreude

September 4, 2009

I remember the day I learned the word schadenfreude in German class.  My teacher explained, with a certain pride, that the English have no word for it, and to express the concept adequately in English, we would have to resort the clumsily lengthy phrase, ‘a malicious pleasure taken in the misfortune of others’.

And so we were sold on both the concept of schadenfreude (courtesy of our teacher’s gleefully vivid examples) and the tidy, handy package of the single word.

Well it turns out my German teacher was taking a dramatic liberty.  The English do have a word for it.  Apparently it is epicaricacy.   But I’ve never heard an English speaker use that word.  Possibly because it looks like a devil to pronounce.  But also because the German word is obviously German, and the use of the foreign word almost as a euphemism convinces us on some cultural level that we imported not only the word, but also the concept – as if you “need a German word for that”.

Nonsense, of course.  The word caught on so well precisely because we understood the concept so well.  It is also a very English thing to savour the downfall of those we feel, for whatever reason, deserve it.

In a discussion with a student recently, it became necessary to broach the subject, and attempt an explanation.  The student nodded, and said, “You mean 他人の不幸は蜜の味 !” (tanin no fukou wa mitsu no aji) – ‘other people’s misfortune tastes of honey‘.  With a broad grin on her face.

Why should I have been surprised?  It seems, after all, that everyone has a word for it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 4, 2009 5:08 pm

    I think that words flourish or fail to do so based on the social acceptance of the concept and the need to refer to it. I’m not sure when epicaricacy was first introduced as a word, but it may have been in a social environment which was more strict about taking pleasure in the misfortune of others than the current one (where it is practically a hobby for most people).

    Mind you, I’m not saying schaudenfreude didn’t exist before, but rather that it was frowned upon and not spoken of so much. I think another reason everyone knows and uses it now, frankly, is that the Simpsons introduced it into the vernacular about 15-20 years ago.

  2. September 26, 2009 8:15 pm


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