Sunday, February 9, 2020

Vindictive, never vindicated.

The Funeral of Chrystom and Marcella Vindicating Herself, by William Hogarth
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     "I was thinking about you and your OED yesterday," writes faithful reader John Powers. "With The Cowardly Liar claiming vindication, then having Lt. Col. Vindman escorted from the White House vindictively, I wondered if the two words have similar roots, despite their seeming opposition. Sure enough, both derived from Latin roots that describe vengeance."
     He stopped there, noticing the common root.  But his observation demanded further digging.  What's the connection? Vindicta is indeed Latin for "vengeance," so "vindictive" is, in my Oxford, "given to revenge, having a revengeful disposition," a perfect description of our president. "Vendetta" comes from the same word
     A negative trait. So how does another of vindicta's children, "vindicate" end up meaning something positive? "To clear from censure, criticism, suspicion, or doubt by means of demonstration."  
    I have a theory. In our era, we think of proof of innocence as offering vindication. Due to evidence, argument. But in more rigidly religious times, a person could also be exonerated through punishment or vengeance, as seen in the first two definitions in the OED, 16th century usages that have to do with "to revenge" or "to punish." You did wrong, received punishment, and were thus redeemed in the eyes of God. Vindicated.
     Samuel Johnson, oddly, has no entry for either word in his 1755 dictionary. Daniel Webster cites the modern usages of "vindicate," but also presents it as a synonym for punish, quoting John Pearson's 1659 "Exposition of the Creed"—"God is more powerful to exact subjection, and to vindicate rebellion," noting such usage is "entirely obscure" in 1828, when the dictionary was published.
     I am an amateur etymologist, if that, and to avoid the risk of inflicting upon you some ghastly ignorant fancy, I ran the theory by an actual professional, British linguist Paul Anthony Jones, whom we met last week thanks to his observation that the word "hobby" derives from "hobbyhorse." (I'm currently reading his excellent book "The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities.")  He kindly replied:

Wholly possible that this development was late in both English and Ecclesiastical Latin of course—and oppositely, even if this change of meaning was already established in Latin before English caught on, all that does is shift this change of meaning further back in time, not alter the reason for it. (I hope that makes sense!!) Either way it’s a neat idea and seems perfectly plausible to me—it’d be interesting to see if any other words have followed a similar track of punishment->reward, and whether there’s a religious element to their development or not.
     So "plausible." While "plausible"—I feel obligated to point out in this age of smeared realities— is far from "correct," it seems a good point to end our examination, with only one thing left to add. Whether punishment eradicates crime is a valid philosophical and social question. What certainly does not erase a crime, now or in the past, is lying about it. Our mercurial president is incapable of knowing that. His vengeful supporters should know that but don't, or pretend they don't. Yet it is clear. Trump is eternally vindictive. And he will never be vindicated.


1 comment:

  1. It is interesting that Goigle’s definition of vindicate includes the word justify. So in other words, even though the president committed a crime and was wrong, because he assumes he was vindicated means he believes he was justified in what he did. I don’t know that I agree with that.


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