The most well-known is schadenfreude, which captures that naughty frisson of happiness at an acquaintance’s misfortune. For example, at a function, a former friend falls and rips his or her shirt. Or a politician who you knew as a child, fails to win an election. It has many more subtle meanings and can be distinctly defined by its opposite: gluckschmerz, which is the unhappiness you personally get when someone (again, usually an acquaintance) comes into good fortune. A college rival wins a famous prize, a neighbor wins a lottery.
Schmerz means pain, and so my next truly dark word is weltschmertz. More difficult to exactly define since the meaning has evolved, but now generally understood, as it was used by Heinrich Heine, to refer to the sadness when the ideal conflicts with the reality of life. It has rather a sentimental overtone…who has not felt, as some time, weltschmerz? “Life is such a drag.”
My last word in this category is more rarely used in the conversation of English speakers, but a great word nonetheless, and that is fernweh. This literally translated means “far-sickness”, and refers to the strange phenomenon of being homesick for a place to which you have never been.
This March we were (until COVIDAngst) going to send a party of 16 11th-graders and teachers to the Galapagos, an archipelago to which I have been many times, and which I am directly involved with in trying to preserve the natural fauna and flora.
The first time I went to the Galapagos, I realized that I had been homesick for these amazing islands and yet never been, such were its wonders. I had fernweh and got over it. My weltshmertz fell away, and I became optimistic and happy with the world. No one in our family or our guide or boat crew, for it was a family trip, stubbed their toes or had any other accident, and so I had no reason to have schadenfreude. Finally, no-one saw a whale shark or some extraordinary animal that I did not see, so I did not have gluckschmerz. A completely successful adventure without any need to use the dark German words of which I have grown so fond.
It is remarkable that the English language, which has a larger vocabulary than German, using as its basis both Germanic and Latin origins, should not have single words that are equivalent to any of the dark four that I have listed. Perhaps, in the increasingly international future, we will arrogate them to our own spoken tongue. All together; schadenfreude, gluckschmerz, weltschmerz, and fernweh! Very good! Unfortunately, I still have COVIDAngst.
Ronald P. Stewart