Today, ladies and gentlemen, we shall speak of words. Well, we are always speaking of words, since we are speaking in words. If you get my drift.
It has come to my attention that certain words are important to certain cultures. Is it any accident, for example, that the word ombudsman comes from Sweden, a country that wants everyone to be equal and everything to be fair? Perhaps you do not know this word, since you are American and find Swedish equality and fairness to be a bit boring. What is an ombudsman? Someone who investigates complaints and helps to bring about resolutions. In Sweden, and, I suppose, other countries with blond people, an ombudsman is often a government official who looks at complaints that citizens have against the government. Good luck with that, I say.
Just as Swedes are interested in fairness
That brings me to the Germans, always an interesting people. They gave us Johann Sebastian Bach as well as Adolph Hitler. Go figure. My favorite German word that has crept into English, though not very far, I admit, is schadenfreude. Say the word schadenfreude to most Americans and they will give you a blank stare. But say the word among the cognoscenti (and if you don’t know that word, you’re not one) and they nod sagely and stroke their beards, if they have any beards, that is. Schadenfreude comes from two German words that mean damage or injury (the schaden part) and joy (that’s the freude element). So someone who is experiencing schadenfreude is taking pleasure at the misfortunes of others. What a great word! It took genius plus a certain amount of perniciousness to create it. Don’t we just love it when some pretentious, overbearing person is taken down a peg? Yes we do, and please admit it. Don’t we love it when someone who is rich and beautiful and sexy and famous turns out to have committed a felony? Absolutely. Can there be anything better than to see how the mighty have fallen? Thank you, Germans, for giving us a word we can use, provided we can figure out how to pronounce and spell it. And why were the Germans the first to think of a word for taking pleasure in others’ misfortunes? They must have needed this word, as the French needed etiquette and the Swedes the ombudsman.
Oh there are so many interesting words that come to us from other cultures. These words tell us what is important to those cultures: fairness, the right fork, enjoying other people’s misery. But these words tell us something about ourselves as well, since we decided to adopt those words. I have concluded that Americans think about equality and fairness, worry about the right fork, and have a grand time when others are miserable.
Until next time, my dears.