Every once in a while, you encounter a word that seems very much of the moment.
“Cassandrafreude” is one of those words. And yes, there’s a climate change angle.
But first, some context. Cassandrafreude is what’s called a portmanteau word, a combination of two terms into one, like “spork” or “labradoodle.”
In this case, the two words are “Cassandra” and “schadenfreude.” If you remember your Greek myths, Cassandra had a gift and a curse: she could see the future, but no one would believe her. Schadenfreude, of course, is the German word for feeling pleasure at the misfortune of others. It’s a compound of the words for “harm” and “joy.”
Like all good coinages, it’s broadly useful. Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, posted a definition of the word on Twitter: “The bitter pleasure of things going wrong in exactly the way you predicted, but no one believed you when it could have made a difference.”
She added, “I’ve finally discovered the word that describes how nearly every climate scientist feels.” It’s that sense familiar to anyone who works in the field of climate change, or writes about it, of giving warning after warning after warning as the levels of greenhouse gases rise in the atmosphere and the effects of a warming world come in with greater and greater intensity.
Dr. Hayhoe noted in an additional tweet that “there is probably a sizeable number of infectious disease experts and public health professionals who feel the same way,” a reference to scientific experts whose advice and predictions have been disregarded in the coronavirus pandemic. People with other backgrounds began to chime in, as well. “And many an ecologist,” wrote one. “Also, social scientists,” wrote another.
It is important to note one thing that the definition makes clear: the supposedly pleasurable part of Cassandrafreude is anything but. It is a sense, more than anything, of ruefulness, said Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, a technology policy and advocacy group in Washington, who coined the term.
In 2006, he had warned on his blog that an economic meltdown was on its way. In an interview he reminded me that pundits and government officials were still providing “happy talk” about a continued economic boom and a healthy mortgage market. And so, as the Great Recession occurred, he wrote on his blog, “I am experiencing Cassandrafreude.”
“It felt like the fall of Troy must have felt,” he told me. “I was right, and sore about it.” He has used the term many times in his writing since then and, in 2013, created an online page with the definition so that he could link to it whenever he trotted the term out. “It’s a nifty little word,” he said with pride.
I can’t help but agree, even if, in truth, being right about terrible things generally just leaves me miserable.