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The Word You Dare Not Spell

Whatever Kaavya Viswanathan’s legacy, she has inspired us to take pleasure in others’ misfortune. And as there happens to be a word that means just that—schadenfreude—many writers have been more than happy to remind us of it.

Perhaps in her headier moments, Kaavya Viswanathan imagined she’d make a contribution to our language. It was certainly possible: Novelists from Kurt Vonnegut (“so it goes”) to Joseph Heller (“Catch-22”) have deposited words and phrases into our lexicon, and the chance of such success is so arbitrary, so unpredictable, that it could happen to anyone. By starting so young, and with the potential for so many books in her career, Kaavya had statistics on her side. More books, more language, more chances to leave an impression.

In her fall, however, she made more of an impact than her only book ever could. She has brought us back to a word many find as intimidating to pronounce as her own name. Yes, her destruction has given us another date with schadenfreude—not the concept, mind you, but the word itself.

Schadenfreude, which loosely translates from German as “taking pleasure in someone’s misfortune,” crops up now and again, when conditions are just right. It’s a complex, compact word, wise beyond its letters. Schadenfreude is more than laughing at someone who slips on ice. It’s a sense of justice, of watching someone’s unfair rise come to a crashing, embarrassing end. It is guilty vindication, not-so-secret bloodthirst, envy that’s been fed.

The word, like “hors d’oeuvre” or “extravaganza,” lives in that great linguistic purgatory of loanwords: words that have been taken directly from another language, often still identified as someone else’s but used with enough frequency that ownership can blur. “Schadenfreude” is commonly known in its native tongue, but less so in English. While there are no specific usage rules built into it, the word mostly gets trotted out by English speakers when public figures take an embarrassing tumble. “It’s more a feeding frenzy of schadenfreude,” University of Pittsburgh linguistics professor Scott Kiesling tells me. “It’s sort of a public shaming joy that goes on. That might be part of why it gets noticed when things like this happen, and it has to be just the right kind of circumstances and then everyone gets to show off that they know the word.”

The frenzy happens with surprising frequency. When Ken Lay and Martha Stewart fell off their horses, NPR’s On Point even ran a show titled “Schadenfreude.” Ms. Viswanathan, however, has unleashed it in a way rarely seen before: By having such an enviable and seemingly unfair opportunity—the youth, the book deal, the raging river of cash—that she’s pissed off writers, just the type of smarty-pants to wave around a semi-obscure German word. Bloggers have used it mercilessly in the past two weeks. The Boston Globe’s Alex Beam deemed Viswanathan “the Queen of Schadenfreude.”

Why do we love reality television, in which the villain’s failure is always sweeter than the hero’s success? We delight in public failure; we thrive on schadenfreude. But even as we English speakers copy the word, and thus offer that so-called sincerest form of flattery, we end up slapping Germans with it. The word, English writers often note, is so very German. But actually, it isn’t. “You may have come across the notion that there is something particularly German about this emotion because they have a word for it,” says Robert Ebert, a Princeton University professor who specializes in Germanic linguistics. “That, of course, is nonsense. German just has many more ways to make compound words.”

Schadenfreude is a fairly simple word, as far as compound words go. Schaden means “harm,” freude means “joy.” Literally, it’s “harmjoy.” In fact, other languages have similar words: Greek’s epikhairekakia and the Finnish vahingonilo, for example. The feeling of schadenfreude isn’t cultural, though. It’s biological. In January, a study published in the journal Nature even identified the part of the male brain in which the feeling lives. But if anything, the way Americans use the word “schadenfreude” is embarrassingly American, not German.

According to Monika Chavez, German professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Germans use the word to refer to people they know personally, as well as to celebrities. In English, however, it’s generally reserved for public figures. And if there’s one thing Americans love, it’s building people up only to tear them down. Why else do magazines like Us Weekly survive, peddling page after page of intentionally unflattering celebrity photos? Why do we love reality television, in which the villain’s failure is always sweeter than the hero’s success? We delight in public failure; we thrive on schadenfreude.

The one thing we haven’t done, however, is fully bring the word into our daily language. If that’s out of a lack of familiarity, Kaavya Viswanathan may have done wonders to fix it. This word shouldn’t be considered on loan from Germany, it should be used commonly and widely, fully integrated into the way we express ourselves. We’d be more honest that way. Its very existence forces us to confront something dark and unflattering—because really, how can you argue with language, a tool built specifically to express what’s inside us? If there’s a word, there’s a reason. Kaavya’s certainly shown us that.