Being so miserable, it can only be explained in German.
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
Though American-English is an ever expanding public language, it still lacks refined descriptors for everyday feelings. Part of being public, we sometimes lose nuance for refined sentiments — everything gets a broad label, such as happiness or sadness. However, this is when a language like German is particularly useful. Unlike languages of Asia, Africa, and indigenous tribes, German is deeply embedded in Western culture, and thus, with its rich philosophical history, has created words for sensations that are familiar in the West. (Much of American-English already has its roots in prehistoric Common Germanic.)
"Futterneid" is the German word for "food-envy," but it's more than that. It is the human feeling of not only ordering the wrong thing, and wishing you had what someone else was having, but also ordered the wrong self, and wishing to enjoy life the way someone else was enjoying it. It's not the food, it's the joy you project onto another, you wish to have their joy. That someone else is more fortunate than you while you keep making the wrong decisions — wishing you could have what they are having, to be living what they are living. Food is obvious, it occurs often, and in a dining setting, we are visibly making decisions, and around the decisions of others, and get to see thin slices of the lives of others. It is why we are more envious of a beautiful person on social media, in some stunning setting, when they are also eating and drinking. It is why we the same word we use for eating is the same word we use for material gain: consumption. It has become the literal metaphor because we all eat. It is the one shared experience, except we think "they" are doing it better than us, and "they" are telling us we are doing it wrong. But "they" is a psychological construct — and so are our thoughts.
Which leads us to "kummerspeck," which literally means "sorrow-fat." Without explanation, our intuition already knows "sorrow-fat." A fat that can only come from sorrow. A sadness that is so deep, the only way to fill it is with food. Yet, since the sadness is immaterial, and food is material, it never gives us long-term satisfaction. Like a ghost, it comes then disappears, which has us repeating the cycle and only making things worse. The guilt of doing "kummerspeck" and the shame of gaining "kummerspeck." We want inner peace yet all we gain is sorrow-fat. And that is "kummerspeck."
And no matter what we try or the amount of effort we put in, we entrench ourselves deeper into "verschlimmbesserung" — "worsening-improvement." There is an unintended consequence for every attempt at improvement. Our solutions seem only to beget more problems.
And these circumstances and the feelings are hard to explain to others. Which brings about its own form of distress: "erklärungsnot" — "explanation-distress." And in our lack of explanation, we feel uncertainty, not only in ourselves but of the world, of our existence. Nothing makes sense, others do not make sense, our behaviors lack sense, and we can't make sense of it for others. We hold dearly to the ideal that the world is supposed to make sense — that others should understand us. And the lack of this certainty brings about anxiety. Perhaps a more fitting definition for "erklärungsnot" could be: Being so miserable, it can only be explained in German.
We want to find "fremdschämen," someone who understands our "external-shame." Someone who gets us, but more than that — who gets our frustrations and our disappointments. We don't only want to be understood, we want our pain to be understood — because we define ourselves by our pain. We believe, that, to know our "futterneid," "kummerspeck," and "verschlimmbesserung" is to know us.
And though "verschlimmbesserung" is a form of deep empathy, like the previous German words, it has not yet penetrated the American lexicon. However, what has entered into the American lexicon is "schadenfreude," German for "harm-joy." We needed a word for the happiness one gains from the suffering of others. Perhaps there is empathy all around us, but what stands out is "schadenfreude." Even the kindest of persons has some "schadenfreude." Just as we feel "futterneid," we are deeply reassured when we find others also suffer from "futterneid." It makes us feel better about ourselves, that we are human and so are "they."
Backpfeifengesicht & Treppenwitz
"Backpfeifengesicht" is a face we wish to slap. Like the face of someone who has "schadenfreude." They have hurt you, and though you may wish to slap them, that would be wholly inappropriate. You want to verbally come back at this person, something snappy and clever. And your brain freezes; and it is only after they have gone do you think of the most perfect thing to say. That's "treppenwitz."
So sick of it all, we fantasize escape. We "quetschen" about moving, somewhere far. "Quetschen" is the German root for "kvetch," which has also entered American lexicon. It literally means to "pinch" or "squeeze" — think of the end of a balloon being pinched or squeezed as the air is being let out and the sound it makes, that's kvetching.
"Fernweh" is the longing to be far away and the sickness of being here. To be away from expectations and the judgments that comes with being who we are. If we are far enough, we can be whoever we want to be. Just as with "futterneid," we not only want to have what they are having, we wish to live where someone else is living. What they are having is better; they are better; over there is better. Wherever we are, who we are, our here and now, is always worse. But with nowhere to go, we "quetschen."
Sitzfleisch, Luftschloss, & Masochist
We are scared. And we don't really want to escape. And, for all its faults, we like the comfort of certainty, and all the creature comforts that come along with it. So we endure, like "sitzfleisch," "sitting-meat," existing in space as a mound of meat, sedentary, envious of a world that does not really exist, but only exists in our minds. An "air-castle" of unattainable goals and desires, "luftschloss." Constantly reminding ourselves of how far off we are, how imperfect we are, and how we will never be good enough. As depressing as that is, we enjoy thinking about it. It's the "masochist" in us, another German word.
It's oh-so-tiring, this constant suffering. That feeling is "lebensmüde," the tiredness of living, and the dread that it may never get better. That this is as good as it gets. When we want to say, "Fuck it, I'm tired." It's a human feeling even the healthiest of us feel from time to time. Something we bring up in jest, because we don't want people to get the wrong idea. It's a nuanced feeling separate from suicide. It's a fatigue that comes from continuous living and "lebensmüde" is when we want to quit trying and "sitzfleisch."
Schattenpark & Drachenfutter
And when it's time for lunch, we "schattenpark." Parking our cars under the shade, away from prying eyes, alone in our cars with our German forest of feelings, and eating "drachenfutter." "Drachenfutter" is "dragon-food," the food of appeasement, a reward to make up for wrongful feelings. Large enough to pacify a hangry dragon. To fill the void of sorrow-fat, without the comparisons from food-envy.
"Weltschmerz" is the blanket of "world-pain." When things go wrong, "of course," that is the course of life. How else should life be? It is what it is — the belief that the basis of existence is sadness. In "weltschmerz," why should we hope for more?
So why even bother getting up for work? Perhaps, if we are lucky, we can restart a dream. But no matter how hard we try to rekindle that dream, we can't. We are awake. "Traumneustartversuch" is the attempt and eventual failure of trying to go back to our dreams. "Luftschloss" is that dream, and since it is a dream, it can never exist.
The warmth of the sun and the season's change melts the coldest of hearts. It is time to frolic — exposed skin, sunburns, and laughter. Tank tops, short-shorts, and bathing suit season is upon us. Yet, rather than glee, some of us will feel "frühjahrsmüdigkeit," a "spring-tiredness" — waiting for the year to end so that we can start another New Year's resolution. This time will be different!
Sontagsleere, Gemütlichkeit, & Mutterseelenallein
On Sundays, when we do get a moment to ourselves, rather than feeling easy, we feel "sontagsleere" — a lonesome emptiness that can only come at the end of the week. What are we missing? Perhaps it is our mother's embrace, a "gemütlichkeit," which can only be described as a warm feeling inside your heart. But when we do call our moms, they only remind us of the weight we've gained, and when we plan to lose it. Thanks, mom! "Mutterseelenallein" is when you feel so alone, not even your own mother is with you.
But what is this all for? This dieting, exercising, measuring, prodding, criticizing, guilting, and self-shaming? What is it we really want? Rather than quantifying steps, calories, or BMI, what we should quantify is "streicheleinheit," a measurement of caress. How much loving are we getting? Because isn't that the point? All this just so we can be loved? To be caressed? But why would that come if we are constantly telling the world that we should be valued on our appearance? That what we want is better appearance, not more love. You are what you pay attention to, and that is appearance. You are what you put your energy to, and that is appearance.
"Abgrundanziehung" might be a universal feeling, it is an attraction to the abyss. It's the fantasy of jumping off a cliff. Not much different from the scene in old cartoons. Being such a specific thought, we don't imagine others will think about that very thing, but they do. With the diagnostic American mindset, we are so quick to label everything as a clinical disorder, but this is not the same as suicide fantasies — which can be anything from taking pills to things more gruesome. "Abgrundanziehung" is not that, it's not about killing yourself, it's the symbolism of jumping off the cliff, into the unknown abyss, and take our chances. "I've tried everything else, but I haven't tried this, so, what the hell." From video games to elections, when we think an option is so crazy, it just might work. Most of the time it makes things worse ("verschlimmbesserung"), yet we are attracted to it just the same.
At the heart of our German emotional labyrinth is "sehnsucht," the obsessive and inconsolable yearning for unattainable happiness. However, happiness would be more attainable if we let go of many of our unhelpful expectations and self-judgments. Much of our misery in the West is self-imposed, which makes us unique from the rest of the world, and in needing of words created by elite German intellectuals. We have first-world problems, as they say, and outside of that context, many of these feelings could not exist.
But perhaps it is better that we do not speak German. American first-world expectations and desires coupled with German linguistic expressionism make for severe masochistic schadenfreude.