I’m not German. I’ve not even played one on the Fernseher (literally: “far-seer,” the German word for television). But I speak German fluently; I’ve been teaching it at the college level since 2006 (sigh), and I’ve been obsessed with the language and its speakers since the mid-1990s, when I had a fake ID and a real nose ring. I even wrote a book about these misadventures, with the language’s most famous compound noun in the title, Schadenfreude, which loosely translates to: “the feeling you get when you discover 25 Germans were just arrested for trying to pull off a 6. Januar.” Ja, the English-speaking world does indeed love the old there-must-be-a-German-word-for-this bit.
Hunger for this consonant-rich nomenclature was, presumably, the driving force behind a recent New York Times piece by Juli Fraga about the purported opposite of schadenfreude. “Finding pleasure in another person’s good fortune,” Fraga writes, “is what social scientists call ‘freudenfreude,’ a term (inspired by the German word for ‘joy’) that describes the bliss we feel when someone else succeeds, even if it doesn’t directly involve us.” Fraga argues that one way of cultivating freudenfreude in both ourselves and others—which, I am meant to understand, we are supposed to do on purpose? For “happiness?”—is “bragitude,” that is, a pivot away from boasting that involves expressing gratitude for your interlocutor’s role in your success.
There’s only one problem (aside from the fact that “bragitude” makes me want to self-defenestrate): “freudenfreude” may be known in sociological jargon (and similar in meaning to the Sanskrit-derived mudita), but it’s not a German word. On both a linguistic level and, one might argue, a cultural one, freudenfreude is Scheiße. Not only does the literal “joy joy” sound all kinds of wrong to the native German ear (and we’ll get to that in a second), the decidedly un-wry, unironic, unqualified positivity the term evokes is nothing less than a grievous insult to the very language whose compound-noun formation rules allegedly enabled it to come into existence in the first place.
Now. As someone who has made more than her share of mistakes in print—here on Slate.com, yes, but more tragically in a book, which couldn’t be corrected until the paperback—I’m loath to jump on a fellow writer for having to print a correction. It truly happens all the time. And yet. You will forgive me the slightest twinge of freudenfreude’s purported opposite when the Times piece as originally published—which identified the sociological neologism as a legitimate part of the German vernacular—was met with a veritable Sommenschlacht of irate Teutons in the comments section:
German here. Never heard that word.
The word “Freudenfreude” does not exist in German, and frankly, it does not sound like it has been invented by a German native speaker.
I am German, and I have never heard the term “Freudenfreude”. I also checked the German Duden, the authoritative dictionary of the German language. There is no such word to be found. Quite frankly, the word doesn’t make much sense either.
Freudenfreude does not exist in the German language.
Freudenfreude is not a German word.
On Nov. 28, the Times ran a correction, which I sincerely hope the aggrieved Germans took as a satisfactory admission of wrongdoing. Still, however, I can see how freudenfreude came about. Because English speakers (often) don’t know many other German words for context, we think: Well, if schaden means misfortune but freude means joy, then freudenfreude must be the opposite! It’s not illogical. However, to many native Germans, freudenfreude comes off…differently.
“I have a lot more thoughts on ‘freudenfreude’ than it deserves,” admits Kersten Horn, a German translator now based in St. Louis. “First off,” he says, “the doubling makes it sound a little unsophisticated.” This sort of repetition is only common in German when “aimed at or uttered by toddlers,” especially when it comes to words for bodily functions (Pipi, Pupu). “Also,” he says, “Germans are generally not in the habit of showing happiness at another person’s happiness.” Indeed, the phrase schön für dich (“good for you”) is “predominantly used sarcastically.”
Horn, an inveterate researcher (like me, he possesses a doctorate in German), embarked on a miniature journey to discover which non-German originated the term. He learned that most references to the term, including by the Times, led to the same place: publications authored or co-authored by psychologist and psychology professor Catherine Chambliss. (This 2018 paper attributes “fatal challenge[s]” in relationships to an “ongoing lack of Freudenfreude,” which “in turn” can produce depression.) The earliest use of the term either of us could find was in a 1978 article in the Journal of Behavioral Economics by Lee E. Preston. However, Horn also speculates that contemporary wellness literature (e.g. Brené Brown’s recent Atlas of the Heart, which uses the word) might have something to do with the increasing popularity of the term.
None of this, however, stops “freudenfreude” from sounding downright ridiculous to Germans — or, even better, salacious. One German professor at a major state university, who prefers to remain anonymous out of Teutonic modesty (and not, I promise you, because he’s one of the 25 people who just attempted a deutsche Jan. 6), pointed out that Freudenfreude sounds a lot like an existing compound noun: Freudenhaus. Literally “house of pleasure,” this is actually a word for brothel.
Indeed, as Freudenhaus is (and freudenfreude is not), the better-known German compound nouns are clever. Like the sometimes-interminable sentences in which they reside, the best of the compound nouns contain entire plot twists. Das Backpfeifengesicht (literally: “cheek whistle face”): a punchable countenance. Der Kummerspeck (literally, “sorrow bacon”): feelings-eating, and the weight gain therefrom. Der Heimscheisser (literally, “home shitter”): someone who doesn’t like to go out much, i.e. doesn’t like to use any toilet but their own.
And, yes, like Franz Kafka said about all the best literature, many of the best German words bite and sting a little bit—especially one of my favorites, die Gewissensbisse, the “bites of conscience” one feels when they do something they know to be ill-advised, such as dunking on the Paper of Record when one is but a very non-famous writer dependent upon freelance assignments for their livelihood. And yet: What makes freudenfreude not just unacceptably cheeseball, but also a sting in the Sprachgefühl (a German’s language instincts), is that this word has none of German’s vaunted linguistic virtuosity.
For more extrapolation, I spoke to the funniest German I know, Kai Evers, who teaches at UC-Irvine and was my Doktorvater (literally “doctor father,” or dissertation adviser). To him, freudenfreude sounds like either “an invention of a fun German 2 class, or a word used by a Baroque poet,” which, you will have to trust me, are both absolutely searing burns. It also sounds off, grammatically: to his own Sprachgefühl: “it should probably be something like Freudefreude (without the n), which is about as meaningful as Kopfkopf” (“head-head,” a nonsense word) and which, alas, might spark “deepish discussions in graduate seminars with students all too captivated by Heidegger” (ultimate burn!).
“The point of compounds,” Evers says, is to put “different nouns together to create a new meaning, not to repeat the same over and over again (except in Dadaist exercises).” He also points out that just as there indeed usually is “a German word for it,” there was already a German word for the actual opposite of schadenfreude: die Mitfreude — literally, “with-joy,” used more commonly in its reflexive verb form, sich mitfreuen, literally “to experience joy (for oneself) with someone.”
Of course, just because the word is ridiculous doesn’t mean the sentiment is to all Germans. Alas, just as Germany seems to have grown its own QAnon, it also may be Knie-deep in our positivity-speak: When one of the country’s most storied newspapers, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, got wind of the Times’ hagiography of a German word no Germans had ever heard, its conclusion was: Sure, it’s not a real German word, but nevertheless it “should belong to our future” (my translation). Germans, earnestly positive? The horror! What’s next, a lifted Ford Super Duty with truck nuts on the Autobahn? I’m all for breaking down cultural barriers, but this is not the German I fell in love with, lo, those decades ago. I am outraged! Outraged! But it is a special — possibly ineffable — kind of outrage that I can’t quite explain. Worry not, though. When I invent a German word to convey my precise current mix of emotions, I expect it to take off like a Höllenfledermaus.