In the context of a creative work, can I use the word 'schadenfreude'? For example:

I experienced immense schadenfreude when my friend slipped on a banana peel.

Will it be understood by a general audience (perhaps not children, but the majority of adults)? If there is no equivalent word in English, is it acceptable to use words from other languages, or would the phrase be significantly better understood with the use of an English definition? Such as:

I experienced immense pleasure in the misfortune of others when my friend slipped on a banana peel.

To me, this is rather inelegant compared to the first.

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    – tchrist
    Commented Mar 15, 2017 at 13:09

5 Answers 5



The question specifically asks whether the general readership will understand it.

"the majority of adults"

The answers claiming "yes" have given no evidence of general adoption. They have only shown that the word has entered the lexicon. The NGram offered in another answer shows miniscule usage.

Unfortunately, proving what the "general" readership will understand is a rather difficult task to do precisely, so this answer can be cut down for "lack of research", but to try to counter that, I asked the first ten people I met in my work day - and I work in a well educated space. Only one of them knew. That doesn't seem "general" to me. It's certainly not the majority of adults in that small sample space.

I suspect that the answers in the positive come from people who knew. Unsuprisingly, readers of this stack exchange have good vocabulary, and it is common to think of ourselves as typical, hence extrapolate our understanding of a word to "general understanding".

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    This is what happens when one’s Weltschmerz wends its weary way into one’s Weltanschauung
    – tchrist
    Commented Mar 15, 2017 at 13:18
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    Just for fun, I checked the same NGram site and a different word hey, "boobs" gets just 10x better score (and has a similar trend). I don't know how to interprete it. Is "boobs" a rare word, or is "schadenfreude" just a bit less known than "boobs"? Or maybe, NGram is poor resource for estimating if a word is recognized.. Commented Mar 15, 2017 at 19:17
  • Well of course NGram doesn't offer any direct evidence about comprehension of words, you have to infer that from what it tells you about how often words are used. I will say it does appear staggering how close in numbers boobs and schadendfreude are. I have no explanation for that :) However, I bet if I asked the first 10 colleagues I meet if they know what boobs means, they will all say, among other things, "yes" :D Commented Mar 16, 2017 at 5:08
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    @tchrist While that is admirable alliteration combined with use of "loaned words", I'm not really sure how you see my passion for answering the actual question as something that is influenced by melancholy... Commented Mar 16, 2017 at 5:10
  • .... you're probably right, I forget how uneducated and dim most people are sometimes. I guess it a word the majority of adults don't know, but should know. Things like the SAT aren't exactly new, it is a part of the vocabulary they are expected to study if they didn't know it already. It isn't terribly unusual or exotic. My guess is that most are familiar with seeing it even though they don't know the meaning.
    – ttbek
    Commented Mar 19, 2017 at 14:27

Yes, it is used in English and its usage has increased considerably in recent decades (see Ngram):


  • enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.


The German loanword schadenfreude is a recent addition to the English language, but its meaning is so simple and its concept so universal that it’s probably going to stay. Plus, there is no corresponding English word. Simply defined, schadenfreude is pleasure derived from others’ misfortune. It is most often used in reference to the misfortunes of someone who is privileged or has been exceptionally fortunate in the past, but it doesn’t have to be used this way.

Like most newly arrived loanwords, schadenfreude is often italicized, and many writers still feel the need to define it or introduce it by remarking how funny it is that Germans actually have a word for this—for example:

  • Only if you are afflicted with schadenfreude—that is, if you yield to the temptation to take pleasure in the troubles of others—will you be pleased to know that every penny of that $180 million is now in jeopardy. [Chicago Reader]

(The Grammarist)


  • "malicious joy in the misfortunes of others," 1922, German Schadenfreude, literally "damage-joy," from schaden "damage, harm, injury" (see scathe) + freude, from Old High German frewida "joy," from fro "happy," literally "hopping for joy," from Proto-Germanic *frawa- (see frolic).
    • 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]


From A Joyful & Malicious History Of ‘Schadenfreude’ by Jane Hu

In an interview with Martha Stewart shortly before her 2003 indictment, Jeffrey Toobin asked the visibly exhausted celebrity if she felt herself the victim of “schadenfreude.” He didn’t expand upon the Germanism, and Stewart certainly didn’t need it defined.

  • Schadenfreude? I asked. “That’s the word,” she said. “I hear that, like, every day.” And she added, in her precise way, “Do you know how to spell it?”

While spelling the thing might be an issue, writers assume nowadays that when they say “schadenfreude,” readers know exactly what they mean.

It’s defined as the “malicious enjoyment of the misfortunes of others” in the OED, which first included the word in 1982. The online OED traces key appearances of “schadenfreude” in English publications, the earliest of which is found in philologist Richard Chenevix Trench’s 1852 meditation on language, Study of Words.

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    Until today I thought it meant "damage fraud", sigh. I learn something every day! Dutch person here.
    – Gizmo
    Commented Mar 14, 2017 at 10:02
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    Apparently there are bunch more of us enjoying the misfortune of others. Commented Mar 14, 2017 at 18:29
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    While the word is demonstrably in the lexicon, I think this answer does not answer the actual question, which was whether the word would be understood by "the majority of adults". It would not. Commented Mar 15, 2017 at 10:39
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    I'd argue that sadism corresponds pretty well
    – trent
    Commented Mar 15, 2017 at 14:36
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    @trentcl sadism is about deriving pleasure from inflicting pain on another schadenfreude is deriving pleasure at the misfortuntions of others quite different.
    – Kris
    Commented Mar 18, 2017 at 16:14

Your question has a couple of parts:

Will it be understood by a general audience (perhaps not children, but the majority of adults)?

The, mostly anacdotal evidence here suggests not.

If there is no equivalent word in English, is it acceptable to use words from other languages

I would suggest either "sadistic pleasure", "guilty glee" or smugness as roughly equivalent phrases or words that are not to clumsy but provide much of the same meaning. However, English has always been a language with many loan words from other languages and I would judge that many of those have been introduced through works of fiction or other creative works.


would the phrase be significantly better understood with the use of an English definition?

I wouldn't go for a formal definition but possibly as an aside such as:

"I experienced immense schadenfreude, (as a German would describe my somewhat sadistic pleasure), when my, usually so graceful, friend slipped on a banana peel."

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    Awesome answer: answers the actual question, in every detail, and includes an excellent offering to solve the underlying puzzle. I'd hand over my "accepted answer" tick if I could... Commented Mar 17, 2017 at 1:48

No, it would not be understood by the majority of English-speaking adults. While the word shows growth, it's still essentially 0% usage. Compare with a "trending" word like "incredulous" to see how rare it is.

Additionally, "schadenfreude" would likely be perceived as haughty and unnecessary in all but the most formal literature, at least in the US.

Edit: I took an informal survey of 16 college graduates working at an educational institution. Three had heard of the word but didn't know what the word was and three heard of the word and knew roughly the definition. So, 19% knew the word and additional 19% had heard of that word, so 81% of those polled didn't know the word. Interestingly, all of the people that heard of the word or knew its definition worked in IT (eight people were in IT or 63% didn't know it). No one on the instructional side was familiar with the word.

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    I don't see the relationship between incredulous and schadenfreude, and the point of comparing the two usages. The German term has a much recent history in the English language and is probably more common in BrE than in AmE. Evidence suggests that its usage is spreading quickly and would probably be understood by an average person an who reads book and papers. Having said that, please provide factual evidence to support your argument.
    – user66974
    Commented Mar 14, 2017 at 10:47
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    I seriously doubt your claims: cleveland.cbslocal.com/2017/03/01/…
    – user210771
    Commented Mar 14, 2017 at 16:39
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    The link to incredulous should be obvious. "incredulous" is just an example of a comparatively infrequently used word, and the point made by the OP is a good one. Just because a word is increasing from zero to a miniscule adoption doesn't mean that it will be understood by the general readership, as asked in the question. Commented Mar 14, 2017 at 21:47
  • @C.M.Weimer Just because a word is used in the title of news article doesn't mean it's well known.
    – melds
    Commented Mar 15, 2017 at 18:40
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    @melds It's pretty good evidence, given its audience, that it is.
    – user210771
    Commented Mar 15, 2017 at 18:41

I believe that schadenfreude would be understood by most native English speakers. Miriam Webster include it, and describe it as originating in German. Wikipedia describe it as an English word, borrowed from German. We could argue about whether it is truly an English word, but there's no doubt in my mind that most native English speakers will understand it.

But having said all that, that doesn't necessarily make schadenfreude the right word to use.

Because you are explicitly explaining the cause of pleasure in the sentence, you don't need to use the $10 word.

You could simply say:

I experienced immense pleasure when my friend slipped on a banana peel.

And having said that, schadenfreude isn't necessarily the wrong word to use. There is the issue of character voice to consider.

You've said that this is a creative novel. Is this the sort of character who would use words like schadenfreude? If so, use that word. If not, use whatever word your character would use. Be true to your story, and trust your reader to follow where your characters lead.

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