Whinge—Zarfu SpecGram Vol CLXXIX, No 3 Contents A More Interesting Observation Than You a Response—Aloysius Vinicius Perle

They Have a Word for That

By Anita G. Gorman

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 fairnessand in complaining a lotso are the French interested in which fork to use for which course of an absurdly long and complicated dinner. Etiquette is a French word. I looked up its definition. Etiquette includes “the practices and forms prescribed by social convention or by authority.” Most of the time social convention is enough to tell us whether to bow or curtseyoh wait, we don’t do that much anymoreor whether to lift our soup bowl to our lips. Please don’t! What bothers me is the idea of “authority” telling us which fork to use for the shrimp and which spoon for the sorbet. Do the French have a Ministry of Fork Usage (the MFU) or an Office of Spoon Usage (the OSU)? Whether they do or not, my point is that the words that originate in a particular culture tell us something about the culture. Therefore, Sweden cares about fairness and equality and complaining, in addition to pickled herring. And France cares about the proper use of eating utensils, in addition to how to behead people in the most efficient way. I am referring to the guillotine, in case your knowledge of history began with last week.

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.

A More Interesting Observation Than You a ResponseAloysius Vinicius Perle
SpecGram Vol CLXXIX, No 3 Contents