There is a great, old Russian joke that captures perfectly the essence of this emotion. It comes in the form of the "Peasant's Prayer:"

"Dear God, my neighbor Ivan has a pig, and I have none. Please God, kill my neighbor's pig."

Schadenfreude is a secret, guilty pleasure. It's reserved for those shut-the-office-door moments, those alone-in-the-restroom-looking-in-the-mirror moments, and those driving-home-in-the-dark moments when you can break out in a big, fat grin over the fact that that asshole in marketing finally got canned. Unlike its close cousin revenge, Schadenfreude is a dish best served piping, steaming hot -- but nibble it carefully, and always in a (very) private booth.

Delight in another's misfortune.

In German, schaden means misfortune or damage and freude means joy.

Schadenfreude may at first sound like a peculiar German perversion, but it is integral to much of what we consider humour - for instance a pie to the face gag, or someone slipping on a banana skin and falling down. As far as I can tell, the majority of jokes set up some real or fictional person for a physical, emotional or social fall. It is the pleasure of gloating.

A wide range of things, from slapstick humour1 through to watching a movie's villain come to deserved grief in the last act is all delight in another's misfortune.

Schadenfreude, as a relatively uncommon loan word in English, is also proof that our language does not determine what we can experience. The typical reaction on learning what the word Schadenfreude means is not "Oh, now I have a new thing to experience", but "Oh, there's a word for that experience"

Decimeter points out that there may not have been an single English word for delight in another's misfortune, but the concept is not inexpressible - it is easily expressed by the words delight in another's misfortune, so this does not entirely disprove the above hypothesis. Or it shows that that you can express just about anything experienceable if you throw enough words at it.

Others have pointed out that there is in fact an English word for taking delight in another's misfortune: Epicaricacy. I'm not sure, it looks more Greek than English to me and it's a very uncommon term, far more uncommon than Schadenfreude. Why favour old Greek words over modern German ones?

Thanks to BurningTounges for correcting my attempts at translation.

1): mblase says: Schadenfreude is not the same as slapstick. It's more like your rich braggy neighbour gets fined for tax evasion, or your cheating ex-lover gets ruined in divorce court. It's the joy you feel at the misfortune someone else, in your opinion, deserves

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