“You are standing by your paper-tube in Englewood reading the headlines. Your neighbor comes out to get his paper. You look at him sympathetically. You know he has been having severe chest pains and is facing coronary bypass surgery. But he is not acting like a cardiac patient this morning. Over he jogs in his sweat pants, all smiles. He has triple good news. His chest ailment turned out to be a hiatal hernia, not serious. He’s got a promotion and is moving to Greenwich, where he can keep his boat in the water rather than on a trailer. “Great, Charlie! I’m really happy for you.” Are you happy for him?
(a) Yes. Unrelievedly good news. Surely it is good news all around that Charlie is alive and well and not dead or invalided. Surely, too, it is good for him and not bad for you if he also moves up in the world, buys a house in Greenwich where he can keep a 25-foot sloop moored in the Sound rather than a 12-foot Mayflower on a trailer in the garage in Englewood.
(b) Putatively good news but— but what? But the trouble is, it is good news for Charlie, but you don’t feel so good.
— Walker Percy’s (1983) “Lost in the Cosmos: The last Self-Help Book” 
This is question #5 in Percy’s “self-help quiz“. The other questions are all similar: each has multiple-choice options of “good news” and “putative good new” (or “bad news” and “putative bad news”). In reading the book in 1984 I found it very funny, and discovered the term “shadenfreude” — taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others. In thinking back on “Lost in the Cosmos” I had assumed that the word “schadenfreude” was in the book. It’s not (thank you, kindle search). I must have discovered it in the contemporary reviews of the book. Reflections on “schadenfreude”:
Although I was aware of feeling envy or jealousy prior to discovering the term schadenfreude, I’m not sure I had the concept. The question arises: did discovery of the word help give me the concept? Moreover did was discovery of the word an initial notion that others had the same inner feeling?
I also had the feeling that my discovery of the word “schadenfreude” was simultaneous with other readers. I suspespected that the publication of “Lost in the Cosmos” was a trigger point for the word and the concept. Google’s word analysis tool, ngram, ( here for discussion) lets me test this idea:
Frequency of book-usage of the word “Schadenfreude” from 1800-2000.
(click here to search “schadenfreude” at the ngram site)
A few observations:
- There is a clear inflection in about 1983. Good (but not perfect) support for my guess.
- The inflection point in 1983 has led to a steady, almost linear increase. Is this postive feedback or other factors?
- There is a strange bump in the 1940s.
- ngram is very very cool.
Investigating Schadenfreude leads to the question is how language and concepts interact. Does “having a word for it” lead to “having an idea for it” or not? I don’t know. The “Sapir-Whorf” hypothesis dates from the early 20th century suggesting that language determines the structure of thought. Since the 1940s linguistic opinions have waxed and waned about the accuracy of Sapir-Whorf. Here is an Edge discussion with Lera Boroditsky on how language shapes the way we think. There is much more on this subject. Wikipedia (at this moment) has a nice overview of linguistic relativity. I remain fascinated but uncertain.
And a final question: does having a concept of “schadenfreude” make schadenfreude more common and acceptable?
Update Jan 6: Two suggestions. My nephew suggested renewed interest in Nietzsche. Seem a bit high-brow. Dr. Andy Woods (@AndyTWoods) suggested the song Schadenfreude from the show Avenue Q (2003-2009). Not sure this is the source of the increase use of the word; seems too late. Nonetheless, the essence of the word comes through. Plus, the setting for the show is Avenue Q in Brooklyn!
Update 2 Jan 11. Using ngram in the German language suggests that German language Schadenfeude has strange peaks, including a rise since 1980 that parallels English usage. Perhaps the late 19th century peak is due to Nietzsche.
- Percy, Walker (2011–03–29). Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book 1983 (p. 64). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition. ↩
I think a strong case can be made that “having a word for it” leads to “having an idea for it”, and even more that “having two words for them” is correlated with “having two ideas for them”. Many nice examples come from neuroanatomy. People tend to think of the caudate nucleus and putamen as functionally different, because they have different names — though really they are just sectors of the striatum. Similarly, people tend to think of the “lobes” of the cerebral cortex as functional entities, though really they are to a large degree accidents of skull anatomy. Conversely, people think of the substantia nigra pars compacta and substantia nigra pars reticulata as functionally related, simply because their names are related. Same for the medial habenula and lateral habenula.
At a philosophical level, the word “consciousness” is an umbrella term that encompasses several distinct things, but people automatically see them all as related, for no better reason than that the same word is used for them. George Lakoff discussed this phenomenon very extensively in his book “Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things”. The strongest example of all, in my view, is the word “self”, whose meaning ultimately arises from an accident of English grammar. If you’re interested, I have written an essay about how that came about: “I Myself and my Self”, at weskaggs.net/?p=44
I’ve been thinking a fair amount about ‘self’, a very big topic. Totally agree that we tend to ‘chunk’ the objects in the world, and language is an accomplice. My (limited) understanding is that there’s been an ebb-and-flow about the relation of language to thought since Sapir-Whorf ideas first became prominent; my sense is that the answer isn’t all-or-none or simple.
Yeah. I don’t think the idea that “language is s prison” gets much support anymore. But language certainly makes it easier to think some thoughts than other thoughts.
What about “language as a catalyst”?
I’ve always had schadenfreude. It may be a fixture of Québec culture, expression of schadenfreude are common in social interactions and the media. Yet there is no French word for it, even in Québec, where creating neologisms is common. The Québec government’s ministry of the French language is mandated to maintain and amend the official specification of the French language (in direct competition with the Académie Française) with new words that arise in popular use, or create new words as needed (typically to gallicize new tech-related words, like internet chat, podcast, walkman, etc). Could this be a form of state thought police? Incidentally I have two neologisms based on schadenfreude: autoschadenfreude, the pleasure felt at one’s own misfortune and zooschadenfreude, the pleasure felt at the misfortune of animals… Hamsters in the microwave… And why not anthroposchadenfreude, the pleasure felt at humanity’s misforture. 😉
I’m fairly sure I had Schadenfreude before I knew the word, but can’t remember clearly. I’m also fairly certain the feeling was rarely expressed. Likely different cultures.