My favourite German word is not ‘kraftfahrzeughaftpflichtversicherung’,
which means ‘motor vehicle liability insurance’. Nor is it ‘bezirksschornsteinfegermeister’, or ‘head district chimney sweep’, nor even ‘’brustwarze’ (‘breast wart’, the horrifically uninviting word for ‘nipple’). No, my favourite German word, at a manageable four syllables, is ‘schadenfreude’. From ‘schaden’ — ‘damage or harm’ — and ‘freude’ — ‘joy’ or ‘pleasure’.
A new book, Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune, is an exploration of this most appalling human emotion. Schadenfreude is not about sadism; it’s not about inflicting damage on others. It’s worse: it’s that warm glow you get when you hear bad stuff about someone else. It’s what modern culture — which the book calls the ‘spitezeigst’ — is built upon.
Schadenfreude is that delicious frisson that ripples through you when someone perfect has fallen off their perch (“Celebrity Vegan Caught in Cheese Aisle”); when something ludicrous happens to the ludicrously self-important (news that symbolically blue, post-Brexit British passports will be manufactured in France). It’s Nelson’s “HAha!” in the Simpsons. The Japanese say that the misfortunes of others taste like honey. The French call it ‘joie maligne’, and in Greek it translates as ‘rejoice over disgrace’. There are words for schadenfreude in Dutch, Danish, Russian, Hebrew, Serbo-Croat, and Mandarin. On a remote atoll in Papua New Guinea, schadenfreude is expressed by digging up the corpse of your dead rival and scattering their remains around the village. HAha!
Over here, we pay cash money for magazines that tell us of the cellulite /addictions/failed relationships of famous people we have never met, and whose public troubles — bankruptcy, infidelity, wonky plastic surgery — makes us feel better about ourselves and our own little lives. Historical examples would be Hugh Grant and the prostitute, or Naomi Campbell falling off her shoes. HAha! It’s why popbitch exists, and sidebars of shame.
So, are we monsters? No! We don’t want this to happen to our loved- ones. Nor do we take pleasure in bad things happening to those less-fortunate than ourselves; this is the territory of psychopaths and Donald Trump. No, schadenfreude works upwards, or sideways, and only on fair game. It can be slapsticky: who doesn’t laugh at dancing grannies falling over at weddings on You’ve Been Framed? In the digital age, where TED talks get 30m views, a clip of a man being kicked in the goolies by his toddler has, to date, had 256m views. Even babies experience schadenfreude; they laugh at us when we drop things. Schadenfreude, say the evolutionary biologists, is part of human development. So, next time you find yourself subsumed in a warm bath of giddy joy, because a thieving CEO was arrested, relax, and enjoy the feeling. It’s schadenfreude. Everyone else is feeling it, too, it’s just that English hasn’t come up with its own word for it. Not yet.
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