Epicaricacy and Roman Holidays




Pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.

[German : Schadendamage (from Middle High German schade, from Old High German scado) + Freudejoy (from Middle High German vreude, from Old High German frewida, from frhappy).]
Epicaricacy is evidently the English expression for this same feeling, which is more usually, in a literary context, expressed in the original German.  I owe this word to a friend who, understanding my word mania, tweeted it to me via my other account.   It does not appear in my beloved OED, but appears to be an Anglicization derived from the Greek term, as in this quote, given in the OED under schadenfreude:
“What a fearful thing is it that any language should have a word expressive of the pleasure which men feel at the calamities of others; for the existence of the word bears testimony to the existence of the thing. And yet in more than one such a word is found. … In the Greek epikhairekakia, in the German, ‘Schadenfreude.’ [Richard C. Trench, “On the Study of Words,” 1852]”
As Ambrose Biece noted: “Calamities are of two kinds: misfortune to ourselves, and good fortune to others,” so the notion that we rejoice in the misfortunes of others seems to have become a kind of wry, universal truth about human nature by the latter part of the nineteenth century, and the German schadenfreude was widely adopted in the 1920s.   Was this an age that cruelly bred a kind of universal glee in observing the misfortunes of others?  Did it have something to do with wars and victories and duelling nationalisms? Perhaps, perhaps not.
Browning coins a new metaphor for the same feeling, in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, when he has a gladiator in ancient Rome say that he will be “butcher’d to make a Roman holiday’ – i.e. his grisly death will be a form of entertainment for the crowd.  I’m sure Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn were unfamiliar with this sense of the term when they raced around Rome on a vespa in the  movie of the same name.
As it turns out, the human tendency to take joy in the suffering of others is a feeling as old as time, appearing even in the Bible:
“Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: Lest the LORD see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him”. (Proverbs 24:17–18, KJV

About hickson1

Art historian, professor, Italian Renaissance and Baroque specialist, Italophile
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