The Grammarphobia Blog

Ode to schadenfreude

Q: During a recent appearance on WNYC, Pat committed one of her rare missteps: she pronounced the first syllable of “schadenfreude” as SHAY rather than SHAH.

A: Right you are. Pat did indeed misspeak on the air. The tongue and mind sometimes go their separate ways during a live radio broadcast.

We’ve written before on our blog about “schadenfreude.” The first syllable, as you point out, is pronounced like the “a” in “father.”

This is the only pronunciation given in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word is a compound, from the German schaden (adversity) and freude (joy). The OED defines it as “malicious enjoyment of the misfortunes of others.”

The OED’s earliest citation for the word in English is from On the Study of Words (1852), a collection of lectures by the philologist and Anglican clergyman Richard Chevenix Trench.

In the lectures, Trench points out a similar word in classical Greek: epikhairekakia. Aristotle uses the term in the Nicomachean Ethics to describe someone who takes pleasure in another’s ill fortune.

In discussing “schadenfreude,” Trench sounds more like a clergyman than a philologist:

“What a fearful thing is it that any language should have a word expressive of the pleasure which men feel at the calamities of others; for the existence of the word bears testimony to the existence of the thing.”

In our earlier posting about “schadenfreude,” we mentioned some of the more waggish takeoffs on the word.

An example is “blondenfreude,” for the glee we feel when a rich, powerful blonde gets her comeuppance.

We’d like to think that if Beethoven came back from the dead, he would compose an “Ode to Schadenfreude.”

Check out our books about the English language