Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Schadenfreuder Central

I’ve seen the word “schadenfreude” in books, magazines, and newspapers since at least junior high (which they’re now calling middle school?). As good of a memory as I’ve always had, whenever I used to look this term up I would soon forget what it meant. It might have been hard to retain because the concept was once so foreign and incomprehensible.

While walking uptown tonight, I suddenly heard the sound of screeching tires, followed by a thud. A car up ahead got mildly rear-ended. (I was mixed up in a similar fender-bender coming out of a parking lot after a Backstreet Boys concert in the spring of 2000. Our biggest concern was how to make all of the open containers disappear before any cops came poking around.)

When I first heard the thud and neared the scene, I dreaded what I was about to see and hoped it was nothing serious. I thought back to how scared and embarrassed I was when I once crashed a car – and this had been in my own driveway, not on a major thoroughfare.

There were 3 people in front of me at the time of tonight’s thud. Two of them jumped off their benches and ran closer to the curb to get a better look; the other one glided out of his parked car while talking into a cell phone – all of their eyes lit up, and their mouths curled into quarter-smiles. They were visibly disappointed when everything ended so quickly and civilly.

The last vehicular accident I walked past, farther downtown, involved a car hitting a biker. I still remember the entertained expression on the face of the man who ran out of a store, pushing through all of the onlookers and cell-phone-camera flashes, yelling: “Damn, this guy just got fucked up!”

“Schadenfreude” can always be found in a dictionary, but it can be hard to find in a traditional thesaurus. How do you sum up an instinct like this in one word?


  1. I had seen the word schadenfreude in my life, but had never looked it up. Your blog stimulated me to visit the dictionary, and I learned that the word means to take pleasure in another's misfortune or pain. That was implicit in your write-up, but I needed to double-check with the dictionary. I gotta say, how appropriate that this is a German word. That may not be completely fair--certainly not to the present-day Germans, some of whom I have met and liked-- but it's what went through my mind instantly when I saw the definition.

  2. I instantly think of the musical Avenue Q, which has a catchy song of the very same name. (They make the same joke referring to the fact that it's a powerful word with a very harsh, demonic meaning - "No wonder it's German!!")

    Hubby thought of a one-word synonym for schadenfreude: rubberneck!