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VOL. 39 | NO. 52 | Friday, December 25, 2015

Experience schadenfreude arguing epicaricacy

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Writing in the November issue of The American Lawyer, a quartet of byline authors put forth: “Among big-firm lawyers, the Dewey & LeBoeuf trial [which, after four months of testimony and 21-days of jury deliberation, ended in a mistrial] has produced reactions ranging from introspection to schadenfreude.”

Of German descent, the latter word – combining schaden and freude – is, literally, harmjoy. And, apparently, this 13-letter word has an 11-letter synonym.

Dictionaries tell us that schadenfreude is, “pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune” (Oxford Online). Or, more succinctly, “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others” (Merriam-Webster’s Online).

In researching the word, I was led to a 2009 novel, “Retromancer,” by a prolific British humor writer, Robert Fleming Rankin. Here is the relevant snippet:

“We drank rum up there in the wheelhouse and watched the rich people bashing each other up, falling over the side, crowding the lifeboats and generally carrying on in a manner which, I have to confess, I found most amusing indeed. … Schadenfreude I know it is called. Or epicaricacy, as the English will have it. From the original Greek.”

In a flippant little piece titled, “When there is no word for it in English, why not just invent one?” (The Guardian, 8/10/2014), Laura Laverne mentions “the mistaken belief that there is no English equivalent for … schadenfreude, … which of course simply means epicaricacy.”

Simply? Easy for her to say; I’ve been messing with these two words for days now, and I still can’t spell either of them correctly. Not even while looking at them.

“World Wide Words” writer Michael Quinion cites “Insulting English” (2001) authors Peter Novobatzky and Ammon Shea for this parsing: epi (upon), chara (joy), and kakon (evil). And says that epicaricacy may also be found in Nathan Bailey’s “Universal Etymological English Dictionary” (1721), albeit therein spelled epicharikaky; Robert Burton’s “The Anatomy of Melancholy” (1621); Joseph Shipley’s “Dictionary of Early English” (1955); a sports column by Martin Samuel in the London Times (5/26/2008); and the Rankin novel previously mentioned.

I tracked epicaricacy down in a footnote to a New York Times, “Opinionator” column (6/20/2010) by filmmaker Errol Morris about an academic paper on the general theme of how one’s failure to recognize one’s own incompetence can lead to an inflated self-assessment. Or something like that. Hint: it starts with a story about a bank robber who thought rubbing his face with lemon juice would make it invisible to video cameras.

In note 8 of this piece, Morris recommends a certain website for “the inner logoleptic in all of us,” remarking, “One of the site’s recommended words is ‘epicaricacy.’ I read somewhere that the German word ‘schadenfreude’ has no equivalent in English. I am now greatly relieved.”

As am I, frankly, because I had never heard of either of the two words. And now I know more about both than I had ever hoped to know. And feel worthless about it! The research was no fun, and the result disappointing! Oh, stop laughing!

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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