On a recent visit to a primary school – I was there voluntarily rather than carrying out community service for crimes against journalism – I was asked what my favourite word was.
Mindful of the fact that my audience was a room full razor-sharp, fresh faced 11-year-olds I had to watch my ps and qs but after a moment’s hesitation I came back with ‘schadenfreude’, which is a bit of a con considering that it is in the Oxford English Dictionary by default, due to the fact this German word does not have a direct English equivalent.
Explaining to a room full of bright, well behaved kids that my favourite word is used described to the pleasure some people derive from the misfortune of others is a tricky business because at the age of 11, human beings are, generally speaking, still nice.
At that age everything is lovely: stress is a largely alien concept and the only mortal enemies you have appear on a flat screen and are made up of millions of tiny pixels. So having an ‘old’, overweight, jaded looking man telling them that he effectively took great pleasure from others coming a cropper must have been a baffling experience.
Sadly, it won’t be long before they get it and only then will they appreciate how rewarding it can be. Whether we like it or not, schadenfreude is a sensation enjoyed by so many of us. How else can we explain why millions of television viewers habitually vote to have the contestant perceived to be the most annoying or unpleasant in the jungle humiliated time after time on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity? Or why a nation celebrated almost as one when Britain’s Most Smug Man, Piers Morgan, lost his dream job on American television?
It is why a study from US academics which concludes that the cool kids at high school don’t have it all their own way in life has been so warmly greeted by many of us.
It is no secret that I usually take such studies with a huge pinch of salt but I am willing to make an exception on this occasion – because it is a report which has a conclusion I am happy to believe. The 10-year study by academics at the University of Virginia and informs us that teenagers who initially appear cool, usually making the lives of others difficult in the process, end up getting themselves involved in criminality and become far less cocky as they seek to convince others they are still cool.
While we had always suspected that the lad with the tramlines in his hair and the best trainers, the one who used to give you stick about your own brand jeans, was a bit of a pillock, it is nice to have it confirmed.
Of course, I don’t wish anybody harm but I defy anyone who has been pushed down a steep hill for miles in a shopping trolley by a gang of ‘cool’ older lads not to experience even the smallest of thrills on years later learning life has not been a bed of roses for them.
So while my choice of favourite word could well be viewed as mean spirited, I am pleased to know that I am not the only one who feels this way.