A reader writes:
For your next blog perhaps you can explain for the rest of us just why New Yorkers are suddenly enamored of the word schadenfreude. I had heard it once or twice until a couple of months ago and now suddenly it’s everywhere. What gives? And now there it is in today’s New York Times, on the front page of the Arts and Leisure section. There must be an explanation.
I don’t read Frank Rich’s column–it hurts my ears–so I didn’t notice that he’d had occasion to deploy one of my own favorite words. I try not to drop foreign words or phrases into my writing (in fact, I told a member of my criticism class yesterday to remove C’est vrai and Gesamtkunstwerk from the piece of his that I was editing). Once in a while, though, there’s no good alternative, and schadenfreude is one of those rare exceptions to my personal rule. To derive malicious joy from someone else’s troubles is, if I may be so bold as to say it, precisely the sort of concept for which one would expect the Germans to have coined a word, and it seems to me altogether fitting that we should have taken it over without change.
I must admit, though, that I hadn’t noticed any sharp uptick in the popularity of Schadenfreude: The Word. I checked just now and noticed, somewhat to my surprise, that it appeared only twice on this blog before today. Google returned 127,000 hits when I searched the word a little while ago, among them a couple of blogs and Web pages for a Chicago comedy ensemble and “a monthly deathrock and gothrock night in Washington, D.C.” (that one I like). I also ran across several references to Joseph Epstein’s clever little book about envy, whose treatment of schadenfreude I commend to your attention (he calls it “a hardy perennial in the weedy garden of sour emotions”).
Be it in German, English, or pig Latin, I expect schadenfreude is here to stay–and no matter what happens at the polls next Tuesday night, I also expect that a large percentage of voters will be experiencing it come Wednesday morning. That might just explain why my correspondent has been encountering the S-word so frequently of late. Nice it’s not, but it’s definitely part and parcel of the human condition, at least for those of us who aren’t saintly.