September 22, 2011

We need to borrow another word from German

Filed under: Germany, Randomness — Tags: — Nicholas @ 12:29

The English language is adept at picking up bits of vocabulary from other languages — it’s one of the greatest strengths of English. I’ve just read of a word in German that I have needed for decades:

Schadenfreude captures a much more complex psychological concept, and therefore lacks a single-word counterpart in the English dictionary (Schadenfreude itself is a combination of the German words Schaden and Freude; meaning damage and joy respectively).

Nonetheless, Schadenfreude is such a basic human experience, that it is only natural that — if you don’t develop your own word for it — you would certainly want to adopt somebody else’s word for it into your vocabulary.

Another word that seems similarly essential to describing a particular feeling that most humans experience at some time or another, but which — unlike Schadenfreude — has somehow evaded incorporation into the English language, appears in the verb “Fremdschämen“:

Fremdschämen describes embarrassment which is experienced in response to someone else’s actions, but it is markedly different from simply being embarrassed for someone else. In particular it is different from being embarrassed because of how another person’s actions reflect on us or because of how another person’s actions make us look in the eyes of others.

Instead, Fremdscham (the noun) describes the almost-horror you feel when you notice that somebody is oblivious to how embarrassing they truly are. Fremdscham occurs when someone who should feel embarrassed for themselves simply is not, and you start feeling embarrassment in their place. It is at the heart of beloved “mockumentaries” such as The Office, Modern Family, or Ricky Gervais’ Extras. It is also what makes the auditions for American Idol, Britain’s got Talent and Deutschland Sucht den Superstar so discomfortingly entertaining…

I can now use the correct word to express how almost-physically-painful I feel when I see someone else get embarrassed or humiliated. Fremdschämen. I must remember that.

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