Hidden Tiny Tales of Tragedy

Today, I introduced a friend to the delightful Australian term “shithouse”. Evocative of an outdoor toilet, it’s not even considered a curse word there and is synonymous with something that is shoddy, broken or sick. It just slipped out, and she understood what I meant, but I apologized because in that one word I had conveyed much more than just the image of an outdoor dunny – I had inadvertently dragged her into the mire of Australian English.

Some words are utilitarian: Cup, map, drink, street. Other words are loaded with meaning personal to the user: Home, Mom, voice, trial. And some lucky ones carry the history of an entire culture. Shithouse is a microcosm of Australian attitudes – its irreverence, coarseness and the certainty that everything is going to hell.

These words are like fortune cookies that when cracked open, reveal our collective thoughts and fears.

Hidden inside them are tiny tragedies – references to disasters, trials and a culture’s grief.


Schadenfreude is a fun word. Literally meaning harm-joy in German, it means taking pleasure in other’s misery – usually minor misfortune, and especially if you think they had it coming. There is an English word meaning the same thing – epicaricacy – but it is barely used compared with it’s evil-sounding German cousin. We have had the word schadenfreude since at least the 1840s but its use has spiked in recent years, probably because it’s a favored pastime of internet communities and because we are all horrible people. On a related note, let’s look at the term cakewalk.

1. An absurdly or surprisingly easy task.
2. A strutting dance popular at the end of the 19th century, developed from a black-American contest in graceful walking that had a cake as a prize.

The history of the word cakewalk is as loaded as race relations in America. Dating back to the late 1800s, a “cake walk” was a kind of competition among African-American slaves to mock white, high-society events like posh dances. The best imitations of dance steps and “walks” were rewarded with cake. Though it is thought to have originally developed within black communities as a way to speak truth to power, it was soon co-opted by white slave “owners” as a means to entertain their elite friends. Think about that next time you want to describe how easy something was.

Dispirited or disappointed by having one’s hopes dashed.

Some words are just plain sad. Crestfallen paints a heartbreaking picture of a downcast head, eyes not meeting yours, ruffled feathers or fur. Heels in hand and mascara running. This word has been with us since the 1600s and peaked around 1900.

And it’s no wonder why: it was a pretty shithouse time.

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