Epicaricacy: Part 2

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)

In my previous post about the rare English word epicaricacy, I traced its history and discussed some other words that use the Greek epi- prefix. This time, I’m going to deal with English words derived from the other components of epicaricacy—Greek kakos, “evil”, and khairo, “to be glad”.

Kakos has spawned a fairly large number of words for bad things of various sorts in English, but with the exception of cacophony, “bad sound”, most are quite obscure.

If you are cacopygian, you are possessed of ugly buttocks*—which might make you cacochymic, “ill-humoured”. Cacodoxy is the state of having wrong opinions—the opposite of orthodoxy. Cacœconomy is bad management, particularly of finances; cacotechny is bad art; a cacoethes is a bad habit; cacopathy is a bad or painful disease; and cacophagy is bad eating—the wrong food, or not enough food.

Something cacodorous smells bad—an example of which is the poisonous metallo-organic compound arsendimethyl, As2(CH3)4, which is possessed of such a repellent garlic odour that it was given the common name cacodyl.

A cacodæmon is an evil spirit. By association of ideas, Robert Hooper’s New Medical Dictionary of 1811 listed the word as a medical synonym for nightmare. He also defined cacosphyxia as a “disordered or bad state of the pulse”, reminding me that asphyxia is literally translated as “no pulse”—which was its original meaning before it was co-opted to refer to the process of suffocation. On which usage the Oxford English Dictionary notes wearily:

It indicates a curious infelicity of etymology that the pulse in asphyxiated animals continues to beat long after all signs of respiratory action have ceased.

Cacology is a bad choice of words, whereas a cacemphaton is a swear-word, and a caconym is a rude name. Cacography is bad handwriting, and a cacophemism is an unfairly harsh description. Finally, cacoëpy is bad pronunciation—which has a certain irony, given how difficult it is to figure out how to pronounce that word.

Khairo has fewer relatives in English than kakos, and those there are have followed independent routes into English from a cluster of Greek words related to khairo. The verb khairo meant “to be glad”, “to be cheerful”, or “to enjoy [something]”. Epikhairo was “to rejoice at [something]”, from which the Greeks derived epikhairekakia, “rejoicing at misfortune”, the origin of our word epicaricacy. (There was also epikhairagathos, “rejoicing at good events”, but that seems not to have produced an English equivalent.)

Eukharisteo meant “to give thanks”, and in the Greek of the New Testament that verb featured prominently in the story of the Last Supper. Here’s the King James translation of the relevant verses in Luke 22:

And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves:  
For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come.
And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.

It’s the recurrent use of the verb eukharisteo in this story that led to the name Eucharist being applied to the Christian ceremony of sharing bread and wine, in ritual commemoration of the Last Supper. Charister is an obsolete word for a song of thanksgiving.

Kharis, in Greek, referred to the spiritual sensation of being in a state of grace, of being blessed—the sort of state that would make anyone rejoice. Kharisma was the gift of such grace, and the original meaning of the English word charisma referred to a “God-given” gift or talent. Only in the twentieth century did it take on its current meaning, designating an ability to inspire devotion or enthusiasm. The original meaning is preserved in those Christian churches described as charismatic, which practise speaking in tongues, healing and prophecy.

Kharientismos meant “gracefulness of style”, and it has given us the useful but largely disused word charientism—the ability to impart unpleasant information in a soothing and pleasant way.

Finally, there is the herb the Greeks called khairephullon, “joy leaf”, presumably because it could be used to perk up the taste of a spring salad, or perhaps because it was considered to be effective against gout. This became chærephylla in Latin, cærfille in Old English, and finally chervil in modern English. As one of the four French fines herbes, it’s still used to add flavour to food.

And I hope this little dissertation has added flavour to your day.

* You’ll be pleased to learn that cacopygian has an opposite, callipygian, reserved for those among us with particularly well-formed buttocks.
The emphasis is on the second syllable, and the central -coë- rhymes with “snowy”.

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