January 02, 2007

Googlefreude, Googleschaden, Schadengoogle...

Lynne Murphy, an American expat teaching linguistics at the University of Sussex, runs a wonderful little blog called Separated by a Common Language, exploring the differences (often quite subtle) between American English and British English. She recently held a Word of the Year contest with three categories: "Most useful import from American English to British English," "Most useful import from British English to American English," and "Best word invented by a reader of this blog." The winner of the first category is the evocative muffin top ('the bulge of flesh hanging over the top of low-rider jeans,' as defined by the American Dialect Society in its 2005 WOTY voting, where it was a runner-up for "Most Creative"). The second category was won by the pejorative wanker (and its derivatives), which certainly has been heard more and more frequently on the left side of the Pond.

The winner of the last category, best word coined by a reader of SbaCL, is Googleschaden. This word's history began when Andrew Sullivan invented the similar Googlefreude, defining it on his blog as "the way in which pundits' past pontifications can now come back to haunt them." When a commenter noted this coinage on SbaCL, Paul Danon suggested Googleschaden might be more appropriate, "since that connotes the grief rather than the joy." An anonymous commenter followed up with Schadengoogle, "to make the parallel to Schadenfreude a little clearer." But by then Googleschaden had already caught on, thanks to a mention on Sullivan's widely read blog. So Googleschaden won out, even though Schadengoogle is a marginally better neologism in my estimation. And I'm still not convinced Googlefreude was all that bad anyway.

Part of the problem, I think, is with Sullivan's original definition of Googlefreude, inspired by a reader digging up a December 2003 post by Markos "Kos" Moulitsas anointing Howard Dean and Wesley Clark as the unassailable frontrunners in the Democratic presidential primary. (Kos is attempting a similar anointment this time around with Barack Obama.) So Googlefreude would seem to evoke not so much "the way in which pundits' past pontifications can now come back to haunt them" but rather "the joy in exposing a pundit's (poorly predictive) past pontifications."  This is not so different from chuckling over such notoriously bad calls as "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers" (IBM chairman Thomas Watson in 1943) or "Guitar groups are on their way out" (Decca Records exec Dick Rowe rejecting the Beatles in 1962). Now it's even easier to unearth such howlers from the blogoscenti, since every misguided pronouncement is archived for the world to see at a moment's Googling.

Thus if the operating emotion is understood as the pleasure in Googling up these unfulfilled prophecies, then there's no problem in using Googlefreude on the analogy of Schadenfreude as the joy (freude) in another's misfortune or harm (schaden). Googleschaden could define something a bit different — the grief suffered by the victim of the Google-enabled disclosure. But if the schaden element is to be preserved, then I agree with the anonymous commenter on SbaCL that Schadengoogle seems preferable, since the whole point is to resonate with that ever-useful German loanword Schadenfreude.

Beyond the semantics of grief and joy, however, Googlefreude works better to my ear because it more closely follows how English speakers create new blends out of lexical material that is from a foreign source or is otherwise compositionally opaque. Previously I've posted about such blends as Jobdango, an employment website combining job with the last two syllables of fandango, and Infogami, a Web application combining info with the last two syllables of origami. The blend components -dango and -gami don't actually mean anything in themselves but are intended to evoke (at least vaguely) the full words fandango and origami. I termed this process "cran-morphing," since segments like -dango and -gami are treated as if they were combinable morphemes semantically linked to the fuller words, akin to cran-grape and cran-apple taking on the cran- of cranberry. Quoting myself:

One significant aspect of cran-morphing is that it completely reanalyzes a segment, regardless of what semantic content the segment may have had earlier in its history, whether in English or another originating language. Cheeseburgers and turkeyburgers don't have anything to do with the inhabitants of a burg, just as Monicagate and Plamegate don't have anything to do with gates.

With this in mind, it's better to think of Sullivan's Googlefreude not so much as a straightforward compound combining Google with the German word freude, but rather a cran-morphed version of Schadenfreude with Google replacing the first two syllables. (It helps that the metrical pattern of the original word is maintained as well.) Most English speakers who use the word Schadenfreude do not actively analyze its composition into the German components schaden + freude. Rather, it's just a long Germanism with an unusual meaning, a meaning that remains crystallized in -freude when combined with other elements like Google.

Another online coinage involving a similar reanalysis of Schadenfreude is Bushenfreude, as used in two articles by Slate columnist Daniel Gross in 2003 and 2004. Like Googlefreude, Bushenfreude suffers from a rather weak definition by its coiner. Gross glosses it as the "weird mix of confusion, annoyance, exhilaration, and anger" suffered by rich Democrats benefiting from President Bush's tax cuts. He writes, "They were enjoying their extra income while loathing its source — a Republican in the White House and Republican-controlled Congress." On the face of it, this doesn't seem to have much to do with the original sense of Schadenfreude, since there's no joy experienced in the suffering of others. Rather, it amorphously recalls the mixed emotions of pleasure and pain encompassed in the German loanword, an evocation that remains even though the first syllable has been overwritten with Bush. (Again, it seems important to maintain the metrical pattern of Schadenfreude in creating the blend.)

There have been other English-language riffs on Schadenfreude that maintain all but the word's first syllable. There's blondenfreude, defined by the New York Times' Alessandra Stanley in 2002 as "the glee felt when a rich, powerful, and fair-haired business woman stumbles" (Martha Stewart being Stanley's case in point). Howard Dean's meltdown in the 2004 Democratic primaries inspired Deanenfreude. Jonah Goldberg of the National Review is partial to Frankenfreude, or "a state of restrained glee at the failures or setbacks of Al Franken." (That one handily bridges the two blend elements with a linking -en-.) And Andrew Sullivan has been down this path before: in an online piece for The New Republic just before Election Day '04 he used votenfreude, which he defined as "the assimilation of other voters' agony." As with his later Googlefreude, Sullivan was unconcerned that the "agony" segment of the original Schadenfreude had been partially overwritten, and I doubt he would have considered schadenvote or voteschaden as possible alternatives. The -(en)freude segment appears to be crucial for such blends, regardless of whether the emphasis is on joy or grief.

Finally, I should note that Sullivan wasn't the first to come up with the coinage Googlefreude. Back in January 2004, the blogger Ann Althouse reported this usage from her son John Althouse Cohen (with a much more straightforward definition than Sullivan's):

They are practicing Googlefraud, and in doing so they're preventing you from maintaining the feeling you had earlier today: what the Germans call Googlefreude (joy derived from Google).

After all of these X(en)freude blends, it may be time to retire this word-coining mechanism for a while. There ought to be a word for this kind of neologism fatigue... How about slangeweile, combining English slang with German Langeweile 'boredom, ennui'?

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at January 2, 2007 02:38 PM