Yesterday in my writing class, I found occasion to teach the word schadenfreude (the feeling of pleasure at other people’s misfortune.) They were all quite fascinated with the word – not only its meaning but that it’s actually a German word, not English. One student remarked, “But there’s really no word to say that in English?”
Well, no there isn’t. Not until we borrowed it from German. And really, who are we kidding? We didn’t borrow anything. We stole it.
We steal a lot, actually. And there’s no one to stop us. The French have their Académie Française, the Germans have their Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung, and even Tartar has the Institute of Language, Literature and Arts of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tatarstan. I don’t even know where Tartarstan is.
But English? Nothing. No regulating body to scold us for stealing German words (or Polish, Turkish, Russian, Chippewa, Navajo, Japanese…you get the idea). No learnéd council to tell us our follies or charge us fines for not choosing proper Anglo-Saxon words like leave instead of relinquish; ask instead of inquire; or drink instead of imbibe.
We are free to say what we want.
Or are we? What, or who, else is trying to control language?
This question has arisen anew in the past few weeks, starting with a scuffle over what the Swedish can or cannot (officially) say. The Language Council of Sweden was all set to add some new words to its official lexicon, among them such words as “…emoji, emoticons used in instant messages; drinkorexi, an eating disorder involving barely eating while drinking alcohol instead; and conversesjukan, or Converse disease, bad feet or posture caused by wearing trendy trainers.” (The Guardian)
It was also going to include the word ogooglebar, which translates as “ungoogleable” and would be defined as “something that cannot be found on the web using a search engine.” However, the word hasn’t become official yet because someone opposed it: Google.
Google wanted the Council to change the definition to “something that cannot be found on the web using Google,” and also to include the fact that Google is a trademarked name. In response, the Council announced that it would not give in to Google’s demands and instead would simply drop the word from its official vocabulary. In a statement given on Wednesday, 26 March 2013, the Council’s director, Ann Cederberg, said, “Google asked the Language Council to amend the definition of the word. Today, we instead are deleting the word, marking our displeasure with Google’s attempts to control the language.” (The Guardian)
This, of course, is not the end of the story.
There is apparently yet another word in Swedish: Bloggbävning: “in English: a blogquake, or “the process by which a topic explodes in the blogosphere and is then picked up by more mainstream media outlets.” (CBC News) Ogooglebar became an Internet darling, adopted by Twitterers everywhere and making it a trending topic. The Atlantic even suggested that we immediately add it to our own English language. For example,
“Used in an English sentence: “I’m going on a date tonight, but he’s totally ogooglebar! What are the odds he’s an axe murderer?”
Anyone who has older brothers or sisters who liked to tease their young siblings would know that the surest way to get teased even harder was to insist that they stop teasing. When I was just a wee lass, I couldn’t say /r/ properly. It came out as a /w/ instead. Knowing this, my sister would ask me questions such as, “Who is your favorite on Happy Days?”
“Wichie.” I would say.
This continued until I was near tears, knowing I’d been once again duped into being teased. (It occurs to me that this might have been a pivotal moment in my decision to be a linguist.) I begged, threatened, cajoled, bribed…I did anything my 5-year-old self could conceive of to get her to stop. This, of course, only ensured that she would continue her torment. The only thing that eventually stopped her was when I just shut my damn mouth. That and speech lessons in the first grade.
So what I’m essentially saying here is that in this situation, Google is acting like a 5-year-old girl with a speech impediment.
Ogooglebar may be officially disavowed, but it has been embraced by the Internet and we all know what that means. Game over.
So much for language regulation by anyone, official or otherwise.
English, as I’ve said, has no official regulatory body to control its usage by its speakers. There are many reasons for this, but if nothing else, we can almost guarantee that as long as the Internet exists, it will serve to mock and render useless any decree such a body would attempt to make. And who likes to be mocked?
So Google have learnt nothing from the Académie Français then? They’re roundly mocked – and ignored – for trying to stop Anglicisms engulfing the French language. They might prefer people to write ‘courriels;, but the French keep right on sending ‘mail’ from their computers. And so on. I once wrote a not-at-all serious post about it: http://margaret21.wordpress.com/2010/02/04/franglais/.
One of my favourite time-wasters is to glance through a French fashion magazine and count up all the English words and phrases. The Académie can’t stop it. How could Google, even Google?
The Academie can’t stop it, Councils can’t stop it, the mighty Google can’t stop it…not even lowly English professors in the trenches can stop language from doing what it’s going to do. And not only can’t Google stop it, but by trying to, they made spread further and faster. A comment in one of the articles I read mentioned how Google essentially shot itself in the foot by making such a fuss over the word, basically ensuring ogooglebar’s immortality and stubborn association with any search engine, not just Google’s.
And then there’s the Office québécois de la langue française: it recently clamped down on pasta, which prompted the Economist header: “Once they start laughing at you, you’re through”.
Incidentally, there is an English word equivalent to Schadenfreude: epicaricacy (with a few variant spellings). But its actual usage is minimal; mostly it just shows up in lists of odd words and discussions of the lack of an English word for Schadenfreude.
The Economist makes yet another good point :) And how can one not laugh at the idea of there being too many Italian words on the menu at an Italian restaurant?
I love the irony of how epicaricacy is only used in discussions of its non-existence. Interestingly, I searched for the word on an online dictionary and it sent me straight to the entry for schadenfreude. The German loan word feels a bit more satisfying, but now that I know it exists, I do like epicarican as an adjective. Thanks for the new word!
Since académie is feminine, français should be française. Thus, Académie Française. Please make the correction everywhere and erase this message. There’s no reason to make a fuss over the mistake.