Epicaricacy: Part 1

ɛpɪkærˈɪkəsɪ / ɛpɪˈkærɪkəsɪ

epicaricacy: malicious enjoyment of the misfortunes of others

Detail from "Return To The Abbey" by Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala (1868)
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Detail from “Return To The Abbey” by Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala (1868)

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 ἐπιχαιρεκακία, in the German, ‘Schadenfreude’. Cicero so strongly feels the want of such a word, that he gives to ‘malevolentia’ the significance ‘voluptas ex malo alterius’ [i. e., makes ‘ill-will’ mean ‘joy in another’s ill fortune’], which lies not of necessity in it.

Richard Chenevix Trench, The Study Of Words (1851)

The Classical Greek word quoted by Trench, above, transliterates as epikhairekakia, from epi-, “upon”, khairo, “to be glad”, and kakos, “evil”. To be glad about evil, in other words. It was familiar to scholars of the nineteenth century because Aristotle uses the word in his Nicomachean Ethics (translated here, by the Loeb Classical Library, as “malice”).

Latin, as Trench says, seemed to lack a single-word equivalent. While Cicero struggled and failed to find a word to do the job, Thomas Aquinas (in his Commentary On The Nicomachean Ethics) went with gaudium de malo—“joy of evil”.

The Greek word turns up, vaguely anglicized, in Nathan Bailey’s Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721):

EPICHARIKA’KY  [of ἐπι upon, χαρα Joy, and  κακον  Evil] a Joy at the Misfortunes of others

This is more than a century before the Oxford English Dictionary first cites an English writer using the German borrowing schadenfreude (literally “harm-joy”). And we’re into the start of the twentieth century before the OED reports anyone using schadenfreude in English without explaining what it means.

So it seems English speakers first met their need for such a word by stealing from Greek*, but then forgot the Greek and stole again from German.

Joseph Shipley resuscitated the Greek version (with modern spelling) in his Dictionary Of Early English (1963):

epicaricacy. Rejoicing at, or taking joy in, the misfortunes of others. From Greek epi, upon + chara, joy + kakon, evil. Bailey’s DICTIONARY (1751) spells it epicharikaky; the accent falls on the ick. The O.E.D. (1933) ignores the word, but alas! the feeling is not so easily set aside.

For Shipley, I’d guess it probably falls into the category he mentions in his Introduction: “Words that are not in the general vocabulary today, but might be pleasantly and usefully revived.”

And from Shipley, I suspect, it started finding its way into various lists of unusual words—first in sporadic paper format, and then in the burgeoning cottage industry of word lists on the internet. I turn it up, for instance, in my old copy of Josefa Heifetz’s Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary Of Unusual, Obscure, And Preposterous Words (1974).

And that’s how it exists today—limping along in the shadowy half-life of words largely unused except in word-lists. Shipley and Heifetz follow Bailey’s direction to place the stress “on the ick”; but such on-line resources as bother with an attempt at a pronunciation guide seem nowadays to favour putting the stress on the “car”. I think one could defend either, so I’ve given both options in my phonetics at the head of this post.

The Greek prefix epi-, with the sense “upon”, has spawned a host of English words, too numerous to deal with individually; I’ll restrict myself to listing a few that I think are of interest.

We’re tediously familiar with epidemic (“upon the people”), of course. Epicentre is the Anglicized version of Latin epicentrum, from Greek epikentron, “upon the centre”. Its original meaning comes from seismology in the nineteenth century—the point on the surface of the Earth directly above the subterranean origin of an earthquake’s shock waves. From there, people started to interpret it as meaning “the centre of something important”. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for this new meaning is dated 1970, in which Snape Maltings Concert Hall is rather dramatically characterized as the “epicentre” of the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts. We’ve recently become used to politicians and journalists talking about the “epicentre” of the Covid outbreak in Wuhan. This can be relied upon to produce pedantic groans from those who cling to the original etymology, but the word is now demonstrably a term of art used by those who study the spread of disease, so the etymological groans are as futile as they always are.

Location of the adrenal glands

The name of the hormone epinephrine comes from Greek epinephros, “upon the kidney”. This refers to the fact that it is produced by the adrenal glands (Latin prefix ad-, “to”, + ren, “the kidney”), which perch atop our kidneys like jaunty little hats. The hormone is therefore commonly referred to as adrenaline in British English, with epinephrine being the primary usage among American physicians. And when the hormone is prepared as a drug, its “British approved name” was adrenaline, while the “recommended international non-proprietary name” is epinephrine. When the UK (as part of the European Union) began to shift towards adopting international standard drug names at the start of this century, changes like frusemide to furosemide and amoxycillin to amoxicillin passed off with only a little eye-rolling among more elderly doctors, but there was a fairly stiff resistance to the replacement of the name adrenaline with epinephrine, for reasons summarized here.

Epicene adds epi- to Greek koinos, “common”, and started life as a technical term for Greek and Latin nouns which, without changing grammatical gender, can refer to either sex. French has a few of these, too—a male or female mouse is always une souris; a male or female nightingale always un rossignol. Back in the seventeenth century, the word was used for garments suitable for either sex—what we came to call unisex in the twentieth century. And epicene was also used, generally in a disapproving way, for people who did not conform to prevailing gender stereotypes in appearance or behaviour.

The adjective epicurean pertains to the Greek philosopher best known today by his Latin name, Epicurus. In Greek he was Epikouros, which means “assisting” or “defending”, and seems to have been derived from epi- and an unattested word that probably meant something like “running”. So perhaps the original sense was of a person who travelled with someone else in order to help or protect them. Whatever the origin of his name, Epicurus is now largely remembered for advocating philosophy as a way of allowing people to live a happy life—and so, rather unfairly, the noun epicurean now principally refers to someone who makes the pursuit of pleasure their primary goal. An epicure is someone who derives their pleasure from refined enjoyment of food and drink; in pursuit of that enjoyment, they are said to epicurize.

An epidiascope was a device for projecting images of an opaque object on to a screen. The name derives from the diascope (“see through”), which projects transparent images. So an epidiascope is an “upon diascope”—it was placed on top of something like a photograph or book page in order to project its image. The shorter, but rarer, alternative name episcope is less etymologically confused, but the point is now almost moot—the ubiquity of networked digital cameras has driven the device to near-extinction.

An epigraph (“written upon”) is an inscription on a building, or a short quotation placed at the head of a piece of writing in order to summarize or hint at its content (like the quotation at the head of this post, for instance). An epigram was also originally an inscription on a building, but usually written in verse. Its meaning shifted to label short, witty poems with the pay-off in the last line, and then to its current usage, designating a short, incisively witty saying. An epistle (“send upon”) is a written communication sent to someone who is elsewhere—a letter. An epitaph (“upon the grave”) is an inscription on a tombstone, or a short statement suitable for that use. An epitome (“cut upon”) is a brief summary of a longer work; if a person or thing can be considered to be a perfect example of something, they can be said to be an epitome of that thing. An episode (“entering upon”) was originally a short bit of speech sandwiched between choral parts in the performance of Greek Tragedy—the sense being of something extra added to the main performance. The meaning was then carried over into pieces of writing that were digressions from the main narrative of a novel or poem, and thence to the modern meaning, referring to the self-contained stories that make up each instalment of a television or radio drama. The Greeks would be puzzled to learn that much modern entertainment consisted of nothing but episodes.

Epilepsy is literally “seizing upon”—a disease that makes its sufferer fall to the ground and shake, as if in the grip of an invisible assailant. An epistaxis is a nose-bleed, from the Greek staxein, “to let fall in drops”.

Episcopal is an adjective meaning “pertaining to a bishop”, from the Greek episcopos, “overseer”. Our word bishop is just an Old English abbreviated form of the Latin equivalent, episcopus. Episcopalian churches are those in which administrative authority rests with a group of bishops.

And an epilogue (“upon the speech”) is a short statement delivered at the end of a narrative. Like this one. Next time I’ll write about words deriving from the paradoxical pair khairo and kakos.

* However, when Bailey wrote his dictionary, the philosophy of dictionaries was still settling down into the present descriptive format. It’s therefore possible that epicharikaky was never in use among English speakers of the time, but merely a word that Bailey thought could be usefully adopted. It doesn’t seem to be attested elsewhere.

4 thoughts on “Epicaricacy: Part 1”

  1. Good morning Dr. Grant.
    I first heard the very first sentence of this article as a teen.
    Only it went like, “If the French have a name for it, it means they’re doing it!”
    And if I recall correctly, originally Schadenfreude until coopted by whiners, applied only to warfare. I make this point because I know it personally. After being shot at by major ordinance, men around me dying, privation to marasmus and scurvy, my opponent’s airforce *napalmed* 1200 of their own men and I just didn’t laugh, I crowed like one of the Lost Boys!
    And that is not who I am when I am not at war.

    1. Lord Frederick Hamilton produced a similar comment on the Germans, on the basis of the word Schadenfreude:
      “The particular sentiment described in German as ‘schadenfreude’ ‘pleasure over another’s troubles’ (how characteristic it is that there should be no equivalent in any other language for this peculiarly Teutonic emotion!) makes but little appeal to the average Briton …” (The Days Before Yesterday, 1920).
      Difficult to know where to begin demolishing that one—but no matter, it collapses under the weight of its own ignorance.
      I don’t know anything about the first German usage of Schadenfreude, but the OED‘s first citation of its use by an English writer is distinctly non-military—it’s Thomas Carlyle sniping at Benjamin Disraeli over the 1867 Reform Bill.

    1. It kind of fell off the “interesting” list. Epitheton is the Classical Greek word for an adjective, from epi-, “upon”, and tithenai, “to place”.

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