Word of the Week: Schadenfreude

WHAT a coincidence that here I am, about to embark on a reflection of a German word, and a dear friend of mine, posts an article on Facebook, called 11 Beautiful Japanese Words That Don’t Exist In English. I’m afraid I may not have 11 German words to share—only one, in fact, and it is this:

schadenfreude |ˈʃɑdənˌfrɔɪdə|(n)
pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.

It isn’t a word one would consider beautiful for sure, but like the 11 beautiful Japanese words that don’t exist in English, schadenfreude has no English equivalent. The closest I can think of is the verb, gloat:

gloat |ɡloʊt|(v) [ no obj. ]
contemplate or dwell on one’s own success or another’s misfortune with smugness or malignant pleasure: his enemies gloated over his death.

Then, there are also the exclamations, “Serves you right!” or “Shame on you!”—both of which simmer in that dark, delicious stew called schadenfreude (pronounced SHAH-duhn-froy-duh).

How about when a kid hums that seemingly harmless ditty to his playmate?“You cannot catch me … ” He sings it again and again, until the tune takes on an ugly, evil edge, pitting the winner against the underdog—the latter forever doomed to that sad, sour space of a loser, never winning, never ever catching.

A combination of the German words Schaden (“harm”) and Freude (“joy”), schadenfreude is sure to be a hit among students who are constantly urged by teachers in school to use the “nicer, better” word, and yes, of course, those “big words,” please. Read: the “not so common” word, and the “not so plain and simple” one. For instance, prefer “elated” over “happy,” which is the unkindest vocabulary lesson any teacher could ever teach a student.

Consider these two reflections:

“Try always to enlarge your vocabulary through reading. This is not in order to use complex or pretentious phrases, but to have available precisely the right word for every sentence.” 

~ P.D. James (1920 – 2014)
English novelist

“There is nothing wrong, really, with any word—all are good, but some are better than others. A matter of ear, a matter of reading the books that sharpen the ear.”

~ William Strunk, Jr. (1869 – 1946)
Professor of English at Cornell University
Author of The Elements of Style

What determines your word choice is therefore, not how big or difficult or unpronounceable a word is, but this: first, how it is “better than others”; and second and most important, how it serves as “the right word” for a sentence.

Enter our moment of glory, our chance to cast the big word, schadenfreude, right there in the sentence, in the scene. It was, indeed, the right word. More than right, it was perfect.

That moment came years ago with a particular student—I forget when and who exactly—and what did I get by way of response?

But what if the teacher don’t know the word? 


Find the word schadenfreude in one of our essays: The New Bus Driver

I invite you to write to me at  viv@mywritinghome.com if you have any word ideas you’d like to share.


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