Charlie Sheen’s debaucherous behavior and bizarre diatribes have made him the tabloid darling of the moment. There’s an “I can’t look, but I can’t not look” mentality around all-too-frequent celebrity meltdowns. If you find yourself watching other people self-destruct then you may be more familiar with the term “Schadenfreude” than you think. What does this German word have to do with one’s insatiable need for tabloid fodder?
Schadenfreude is a loanword – a word that has been borrowed from another language (in this case, German) and is derived from schaden (harm) and freude (joy). Schaden is derived from the Middle High German schade and is a cognate – words having a common etymological origin – with the English “scathe.”
The exact definition of Schadenfreude is “the satisfaction or pleasure felt at someone else’s misfortune.” There is a distinction between a “secret Schadenfreude,” harboring a private feeling, and an “open Schadenfreude,” a public display of ridicule.
An English expression used to capture a similar sentiment is “Roman Holiday” – a metaphor from a poem by George Gordon, commonly known as Lord Byron, entitled “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” – which describes the sadistic enjoyment felt by an audience upon watching a gladiator suffer.
Mudita, a Buddhist concept meaning “sympathetic joy” or “happiness in another’s good fortune”, is perhaps the exact opposite of Schadenfreude.
You may have noticed the capitalization of “S” in Schadenfreude. For the purpose of this post, German nouns always begin with a capital letter. When adopted as a loanword it is not capitalized unless the origin is being emphasized.