Words : Scandal


The Independent was the first to break that story of large-scale child abuse in Merseyside children's homes - "3,000 in new abuse scandal" said its banner headline, echoing earlier ones ("New child abuse scandal"; "300 victims in secret child sex scandal"). is a word you might have expected in popular papers, sometimes called scandal sheets. But the pops disseminate scandals while leaving the word itself to be displayed in 72-point type in the heavies. If this sounds paradoxical, it isn't really. It's just that scandal is an ogre with two heads. One tells the truth, the other could be lying.

The truthful head spoke through Francis Bacon (the essayist, not the artist) when he wrote that "heresies and schisms are ... the greatest scandals", meaning that, being true, they brought the Church into disrepute. The lying head spoke through Polonius when for devious reasons he instructed one of his servants to "put scandals" on his son Laertes; and through Tennyson when, inviting his chum Frederick Denison Maurice down to Farringford, he wrote: "You'll have no scandal when you dine, but honest talk and wholesome wine" - none of that donnish tittle-tattle F D got in London. (The tittle- tattle was probably more fun than what we know of Tennyson's conversation, but never mind.)

Bacon was sticking to the older meaning. came originally from the Greek for a stumbling block, and was used of something that made people's faith falter, or it could mean a lapse of morals. The newer meaning was already going strong when he wrote that essay; Shakespeare had used it in both senses. One can see how the word got its two heads, though. A rumour put about by scandalmongers could be just as upsetting to the faithful as a real scandal.

There was no trouble about which meaning to take. It's a question of whether an article - a scandal, the scandal - is involved. Or an adjective. Anyone who talks about "a disgraceful scandal" is instantly believed and everyone is appalled. , no attachments, is a mere smell, no substance.

Nicholas Bagnall