In and Around Language: New Slang?

Gregory B. Johnston

“Schadenfreude”: everyone’s favorite German-cum-English word, meaning to take pleasure in someone else’s suffering. Not just aurally pleasing, schadenfreude also highlights one of the many shortcomings of the English language: “I am an asshole” is not nearly as elegant.

In this respect, English lets us down again and again. Why should we have to rely on the Danes for the term “kælling”: a mother who stands on her own doorstep and yells obscenities at her children? Where was Webster when that happened?

Just think of how many awkward First Chance Dance hookups are avoided at the University of Tokyo because of the Japanese word “bakku-shan,” a term used to describe a girl who appears pretty from behind but not from the front.

The limits of our own language can be overcome by a bit of creative borrowing. Linguistic determinists say our native language limits our capacity for knowledge and thought—and sure, we may not empathize with Persian’s “nakhur”: a camel that won’t give milk until her nostrils have been tickled. But it’s not only the Germans that have to restrain themselves when confronted by a “Backpfeifengesicht”: a face in need of a slapping.

And if there is no word in English for hesitating and then running away like Charlie Chaplin, why not dip into Central American Spanish for the wonderful term “achaplinarse?”

So the next time you borrow things from a friend, one by one, until they are all gone, remember that you’re guilty of “tingo,” as they say on Easter Island. And if your schadenfreude starts to show its face, try and suppress it by thinking of how splendid it is that the Germans created a specific word devoted to the concept.

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