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What is Schadenfreude?

Michael Pollick
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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There are some German words and phrases used in the English language to help define the undefinable. We may refer to the zeitgeist of a popular film, or the sturm und drang surrounding a raucous argument. Schadenfreude is another evocative German compound word which literally translates into "damage joy," or the secret pleasure one may derive from another person's suffering. There is rarely any positive connotation of schadenfreude, although it is often the basis of humor in physical comedies and politically incorrect jokes.

Some sources say the word schadenfreude only entered the English language around 1895. Even the Germans who coined the word originally had to combine two separate ideas, schaden (damage) and freude (joy), to express the idea of guilty pleasure derived from observing others in distress. Native Germans often separate the idea of a secret feeling of schadenfreude from a more public display of an inappropriate emotion. Essentially, one could derive secret pleasure, or schadenfreude, from seeing a rival embarrass himself in front of his boss.

Although the connotations of schadenfreude are almost universally negative, it does form the basis of much of our humor. Without some sense of schadenfreude, slapstick comedies featuring the Keystone Cops or Charlie Chaplin would not be nearly as humorous to audiences. Many of us instinctively laugh at the misfortunes of others, especially if those characters have been presented as treacherous, arrogant, condescending, or evil. There is a certain level of satisfaction watching a sympathetic character such as Chaplin's tramp exact revenge on his tormentors. That internal feeling of satisfaction as we watch others get their comeuppance is a form of schadenfreude.

Schadenfreude often has an undercurrent of perverse justice, especially when we perceive the punishment or suffering as deserved by the offense. Basically, if we believe the victim had it coming, it is more acceptable to take a secret joy in his suffering, or to see it as a form of karmic payback. Schadenfreude can take on a much sinister meaning when applied to larger social problems, however. Many racial, social or religious prejudices are reinforced by feelings of schadenfreude.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick , Writer
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Discussion Comments

By sputnik — On Apr 22, 2008

German is known for combining words, and very often much more than just two words, like with Schadenfreude. It is a good word, even though the concept seems cold and cruel. Of course it depends on the circumstance.

Michael Pollick

Michael Pollick

Writer

As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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