on language


Many people say that English is the hardest language to understand because so many words can mean different things and we often need a sentence to explain one word in another language. For example, in the US it is quite common for people to publicly “root for the team.” In other English-speaking countries if you are caught doing that you will be arrested. In Australia to call someone “an old bastard” is a term of endearment. But in some other English-speaking countries it could be the first few words in an argument or the last words before a fight. In the US to say you are “stuffed” or would like “to get stuffed” has a meaning that is related to over-eating. In some other English-speaking countries telling someone to “get stuffed” is not a term of endearment. But my struggle is not just with the English language. I have struggled with other languages. My first confrontation with a foreign language was in The Netherlands and Belgium where they speak Dutch, Flemish, Wallon and German. There also is a small minority in Belgium that speak Italian, Spanish, Greek, Arabic and Turkish. When I worked there in the 1980s I stayed with my version of English.

Hugo-German-English-Dictionary-1200The only non-English language I studied was German and it was a long time after I first visited Germany. I found German a fascinating language. It was very precise, as you would expect, and challenging. After three years of study at university I could easily read and write German but speaking it was a challenge because of the many dialects. That did not deter me so I plunged into the language armed with my pocket dictionary. My very old Hugo English-German, German-English Dictionary was useful as it fitted neatly into my pocket but the print was so small that it was useless late at night in a dark brauhaus. It helped me get into trouble but not out of it. The dictionary was published in London just after World War II and we know what the English thought of the German language then.

I intended to call this story “Mein Kampf mit Deutsches” but then remembered that part of the title had been used before, some 90 years ago. To avoid any accusations of plagiarism or copyright issues I decided to call it My Struggle with “Genglish.”

In German one word often is translated into a whole sentence in English. For example, when I first went to Berlin in 1959 I asked what the “U-Bahn” was, to be told the full name was “unterdiebahngehenderzug” (or something like that) which when translated into English was “under the ground going train” or “the train that goes under the ground.” In London it was called the “tube” or the “underground”, in New York it was called the “subway” and in Paris the “Metro.” In Berlin they also had the S-Bahn which was the “surface train” or the train that didn’t go under the ground. So it seems my struggle was with English and not German. In English we don’t have a word to describe “Schadenfreude” a commonly used word at dinner parties. We need a whole sentence. But then the German language doesn’t have a word to describe the opposite of “Schadenfreude.” If they did, according to my pocket dictionary, it would have to be “Gluckschmerz.”

“Schadenfreud” has been defined by Wiktionary as “malicious enjoyment derived from observing someone else’s misfortune.” But Arthur Schopenauer (The Essays of Arthur Schopenauer on Human Nature, 1897) described “schadenfreude” as “a mischievous delight in the misfortunes of others.” There is a difference between “malicious” and “mischievous.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of “Schadenfreude” is: “A feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the troubles of other people.” The Oxford Dictionary definition is: “Pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.” So there seems to be a general feeling amongst the English-speaking world that “Schadenfreude” means some people are happy when they see someone else get what is coming to them. We need a whole sentence in English to define that one word – “Schadenfreude.” No wonder the Germans build damn good cars, they are more efficient than we English-speaking countries.

My Hugo pocket dictionary doesn’t have the word “Gluckschmerz” and nor do the Merriam-Webster or the Oxford dictionaries. If they did it would have to be the pain, ache, grief or suffering (schmerz) that people suffer when someone else has good fortune or good luck (gluck).

Now, after all these years, what started me thinking about “Schadenfreude”? It isn’t a word that I use in conversation although I often do hear people say “Oh, that is Schadenfreude!” The weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal carried a very entertaining article, by Ben Cohen, Schadenfreude Is in the Zeitgeist, but Is There an Opposite Term? It is probably the most entertaining article in the WSJ that I have read for a long time. What Cohen said was:

People can also take pain in someone else’s pleasure. Why isn’t there a word for that?…. It turns out there is. Scholars have finally found a linguistic relative of schadenfreude, and it sounds like another German portmanteau: gluckschmerz. Except it isn’t.

“It is not an actual word in the German language,” says University of Kentucky psychologist Richard Smith. “You won’t find it in any German dictionary.”

Well, I looked in my Hugo Dictionary and Richard Smith was correct. There is no word “Gluckschmerz” listed. “Gluck” (with an umlaut) is there and defined as (good) fortune or (good) luck. “Schmerz” is also listed and defined as: pain, ache, grief, suffering. So it seems to me that there should be a word in German to cover “the unhappiness one feels due to the success of others.” If there was one word we could casually drop it into a conversation when we didn’t think someone else deserved recognition for success. It would be more efficient than saying: “they didn’t deserve that” or “why the hell should they get all the credit?” But the word “Gluckschmerz” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “Schadenfreude”, nor does it have an umlaut, so I couldn’t just drop it into a conversation and let it hang there. I would feel the need to explain what it meant and why I was not happy with someone else’s good fortune, and this would take the conversation down a different path. If I just dropped “Schadenfreude” into a conversation everyone would nod in agreement and the conversation would move on in the direction I intended. So before the influential WSJ succeeds in getting recognition of “Gluckschmerz”, with or without an umlaut, to describe our feelings of envy or unhappiness at the success of others we should ask the Germans to provide an alternative. After all it is their responsibility to come up with one word to cover a whole sentence in English and maintain their lead in language efficiency. There must be someone in the Federal Republic of Germany, in the Chancellery or Bundestag who has responsibility for language efficiency. Having sorted out the Greek economic fiasco, well at least for now, they should be happy to consider coming up with a word to replace “Gluckschmerz.” We shouldn’t allow them to just “kick the can down the road” on this important issue too. I checked the official website of the Federal Republic of Germany but could not find anyone with a title like Geschaftsfuhrer fur Sprache Leistungsfahigkeit. My little Hugo’s dictionary helped me put that title together with “Geschaftsfuhrer” meaning ”business leader or manager”, “Sprache” meaning “language” and “Leistungsfahigkeit” (umlaut over the a) meaning “efficiency.” Someone must have the responsibility for the German language to efficiently convert a whole sentence in English into one word that we can confidently use in a conversation. After all, since 1959 they have changed the definition of U-Bahn from a whole German sentence into one word “untergrundbahn” which, dare I say, they copied from the English “underground.” They didn’t choose “subway” or “metro.”

When I worked in Europe in the 1980s, many years after studying at university, I became confident in speaking German, except in Cologne and Bavaria where I never mastered the dialects. But I had trouble with the word “Geschaftsfuhrer.” Not in pronouncing it but using or accepting it. I kept thinking about my first visit to Berlin in 1959 and seeing the aftermath of World War II and the leadership of their “Geschaftsfuhrer.” The CEO of the company in Germany, who worked for me, carried the title “Geschaftsfuhrer.” The CEOs of the other companies in the group had more acceptable titles like “Managing Director”, “General Manager”, or “Manager.” When we had a meeting of all of the European CEOs and the “Geschaftsfuhrer” walked into the room, the conversation stopped. It was thirty-three years after the end of World War II but memories were still raw. When I suggested a different and more appropriate title the “Geschaftsfuhrer” reminded me that his title was still respected in Germany, especially amongst the workers, and to change it would be seen as a demotion for him. I found a solution by promoting him to my staff as “Assistant to the Chief Executive, Europe” and replacing him with a new “Managing Director, Germany.” Almost everyone in the group was happy with the outcome. It was “Schadenfreude.”

Image: “English to German” - found on Pinterest.com and JumpinJoker.com.
Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock, a former senior Australian executive of a mining company, first visited China in 1972 at the end of the Cultural Revolution and before diplomatic recognition by the Australian and US Governments. This was the first of many visits to China during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1978, he traveled throughout China with a trade delegation and revisited Shanghai where he stayed at the Shanghai Mansions Hotel and discovered the “Last Bottle of Gin in China”.