"Martha Stewart's statements on the courthouse steps after her sentencing last Friday unleashed a whole new round of schadenfreude."

"Hence, I felt a certain perverse schadenfreude as I wondered exactly how the hero was going to fix (or, more likely, foul up) his current life."

"A highly specific strain of fire schadenfreude -- hoping for the worst in some distant forest because it is best for one's immediate family and friends -- is endemic on this and many other reservations."

To hear the media -- including The Washington Post, in which the preceding three sentences appeared in the last few weeks -- tell it, America is brimming over with schadenfreude.

But unless you're that guy who keeps winning on "Jeopardy," maybe you don't quite know what "schadenfreude" means. Is it a newly fashionable breed of dog? Starbucks's latest frozen concoction? Something contagious?

Schadenfreude (pronounced SHAHD-n-froy-duh) is the German term for malicious pleasure taken in another person's misery. And according to those who have studied the sensation, it's something almost all of us feel now and again, secretly smirking when a colleague gets passed over for promotion or crowing aloud when a preening politician gets sent to the slammer. Like it or not, schadenfreude -- in German, "schaden" means "damage," and "freude" means "joy" -- is part of the human condition.

Oddly, for all the schadenfreude we Americans evidently exude -- the word has appeared in nearly 300 U.S. newspaper articles in the past year -- the English language has no word for the phenomenon. (Note to selves: If we do come up with one, let's make it easier to spell.)

Still, we have it in spades, aiming it in recent months at such public scorn magnets as the felonious home ec mogul Stewart, the spendthrift Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski, the house-of-cards players at Enron, the deceitful conglomerateur Bernie Ebbers of the late WorldCom, conservative commentator and painkiller addict Rush Limbaugh, the broke and battered boxer Mike Tyson and dictator-turned-dunghole-dweller Saddam Hussein.

Schadenfreude even plays a role in the success of popular television shows like "Survivor," where players are exiled for their failures or their sins, and "The Apprentice," which hinges on viewers' desire to witness the moment when the most arrogant Donald Trump sycophant gets told, "You're fired."

No need a person be real to be the object of schadenfreude: Many of world's great literary works -- "King Lear," for instance -- and some of our most enduringly popular movies -- like "Citizen Kane" -- feed the audience's desire to see the mighty brought to heel.

Schadenfreude has suffered a bad rap for more than a century, says John Portmann, assistant professor of religious studies at University of Virginia, whose book "When Bad Things Happen to Other People" (Routledge, 2000) either helped spur or merely coincided with an explosion in use of the term.

In 1852, Portmann explains, theologian R.C. Trench (in the first known use of the word in English) called schadenfreude a mark of pure evil and cautioned against even thinking such a thought, much less giving it voice.

Other research views schadenfreude as an expression of either envy (as the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer suggested early in the 19th century) or resentment.

Working against that critical backdrop, Portmann has been on a mission to improve schadenfreude's shady reputation and celebrate its role in human psychology.

"The number-one goal of my book," Portmann claims, was to argue that "sometimes you can justify this emotion."

While those who feel schadenfreude every day -- and even seek out bad news about other people -- may be pathological, Portmann says, occasional bouts of schadenfreude are perfectly defensible.

Law-abiding citizens, he explains, are justified in feeling good when lawbreakers get punished. Similarly, rich people who haven't toiled to earn their wealth -- or who, like Kozlowski or Tyson, have flaunted or misspent it -- might be fairly viewed by hard workers as deserving to be brought down a peg.

"Any time you care about justice," Portmann says, "you're going to predispose yourself to feeling schadenfreude."

Envy and Other Sins

Richard Smith, associate professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky and one of a the few researchers to focus on the phenomenon, agrees with Portmann that a sense of justice lies at the heart of schadenfreude.

But Smith has concentrated on teasing out the relationship between schadenfreude and envy. Smith has studied schadenfreude in the context of social comparison -- the way people's perceptions of where they rank relative to other people affects the way they think and behave.

His research has shown that the more enviable a person seems, the more likely others are to feel schadenfreude toward him.

"If you envy somebody, you feel inferior," Smith says. "You tend not to like the person, and you feel they don't deserve success." That feeling sets you up for a good case of schadenfreude when the object of envy stumbles.

While schadenfreude certainly ranks among the less attractive human sentiments, it is essentially harmless. Portmann points out that, by definition, schadenfreude is passive, occurring only when the folks feeling it haven't helped cause the downfall of the person at whom it's aimed.

In fact, Portmann objects to the use of the word "malicious" in schadenfreude's standard definition. Malice, he suggests, implies active hatred. True schadenfreude, he says, is all about sitting around watching bad things happen.

But those who often experience schadenfreude may do so at their own peril. "If we find ourselves so frequently getting pleasure over other people's misfortunes," Smith wrote in an e-mail, "it probably begins to take a toll on our sense of who we are as moral people."

And putting on an outward show of sympathy for the fallen might not help. "Even if we have a good supply of crocodile tears for public consumption," Smith said, "the private recognition of our hypocrisy, together with the fact of our frequent pleasure, may lead to our concluding that we are morally challenged."

Queen of the schadenfreude targets these days is, of course, Stewart, whose wealth and power likely made her the object of considerable envy, and whose well-known hauteur made many observers feel justice had been done when her recent legal troubles sent her jailward.

Stewart's case illustrates how varied schadenfreude can be, Portmann notes. Whereas one person's reaction to Stewart's dilemma might be a gleeful and very personal feeling that "she's finally getting what she deserves," another might simply feel glad that society proved to her that its "rules and laws must be obeyed. Stewart broke rules, so she must be punished."

Kinderfreude

Nobody's sure at what stage of life true schadenfreude kicks in. Portmann believes that kids who laugh when they see someone fall down on the playground aren't expressing some deep-seated belief that the fallen person deserves his fate.

"Children are experimenting with emotions," he says. "When they see someone fall down, they laugh, not out of delight [at the person's misfortune] but to see how the person will react. The schadenfreude of children is not that serious, but just an expression of curiosity."

But Portmann concedes that youthful schadenfreude has never been well understood, noting that in the seminal book "Jokes and Their Relationship to the Unconscious," Sigmund Freud "shrugs his shoulders and says we just don't know why children respond" with pleasure when they see others hurt.

One thing is well established, though: "Kids are more open in displaying schadenfreude," Portmann observes. "As we grow up, we learn to hide it."

Complicating any attempt to deconstruct schadenfreude is the stark fact that one person's justice may be another's outrage. Just after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Portmann notes, American television viewers were shocked and dismayed to see Middle Eastern people dancing in the streets, expressing their joy over the United States' bad fortune.

Even within a single culture, there are multiple ideas of what constitutes justice. "Our notions of good and bad change all the time," Portmann says. "That makes schadenfreude really interesting."

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Jennifer Huget's last feature for the Health section dealt with measuring potential hazards in consumer products such as toothpaste.

Dennis Kozlowski allegedly used Tyco as a "personal piggy bank." Payback time! Sure, Saddam will face justice. Until then, his dental exam and delousing will tide us over. If Stewart had been more forgiving of our messes, her dirty laundry might not smell so sweet. Iron Mike: Rich, swaggering, omnipotent. Ironic Mike: Broke, battered and badly tattooed! WorldCom's Bernie Ebbers: Once the toast of telecom world. Now he's just toast. Private pain, public pleasure: Rush Limbaugh railed against drug addicts and the weak-willed. Author John Portmann: "Sometimes you can justify this emotion."