"WE hope," said the Independent in its leader on the Sierra Leone coup, "that public servants will not be used as scapegoats", and it would certainly be scandalous if the staff of the Foreign Office were made to made to suffer for any sins of Robin Cook's. In Biblical times, however, people took a different view: scapegoating was not only respectable but also compulsory. According to the Third Book of Moses (otherwise known as Leviticus), the Lord specifically instructed Moses's brother Aaron to get hold of a couple of goats, then sacrifice one of them to the Lord and consign the other to the Evil One; this second goat was allowed to escape into the wilderness, carrying the sins of the entire community with it.

It was William Tyndale in his 1530 translation who coined the word "scapegoat" for it, a mistranslation as it happened, but it survived in the 1611 Bible and has served well enough since then, if only as a metaphor, and a very good one. Holman Hunt, perverse as often, took it literally by doing an absurd, rather bad-taste painting of an actual goat in a rocky landscape looking as if it was about to pass out (which, after modelling for Hunt, it did). Latter-day scapegoats are all human, as were those of ancient Greece, who came to an unpleasant end, probably by stoning. Frazer tells us about it, along with other sin-consuming ceremonies of earlier times, in his Golden Bough, which makes you wonder about Greece being the cradle of Western civilisation.

The word has been diluted lately by people who have forgotten where the metaphor came from and tend to use it about anyone who has been been victimised in a general way. Social psychologists, focusing on the oppression of the weak by the strong, call it "scapegoating". It may well be that the strong are motivated by a collective desire to shake off sin, like Aaron, but we can't be sure of that. At least the Independent used the word as it ought to be used.

Nicholas Bagnall