Glossary: Nowadays, even sinners can be sinned against

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The Independent Online
THE WORD 'victim' appears 13 times in Tuesday's edition of the Independent - hardly surprising for a day when victims' rights were under discussion. But look more closely and you see that only six of them are directly related to Michael Howard's announcement that judges should take into account the effects of crime when passing sentence.

The other uses refer to a rugby player disciplined for a high tackle, a tennis player with a drug habit, a disgraced businessmen appealing against his conviction, Haitian protesters murdered by death squads, women who suffer sexual harassment, a woman killed in a traffic accident1 and, most oddly of all, suicides.

So the word offers a pretty broad spectrum2 of suffering - you can be a victim even if you have made victims yourself (it isn't pleasant to be on the receiving end of a high tackle); you can be a victim of your own volition; you can be a victim whether what you suffer is merely irritating or fatal; you can be grossly culpable or innocent, carefully singled out or fatally unlucky; in Ernest Saunders' case you can even be a victim of Alzheimer's when in prison and then, by virtue of a miraculous remission, pursue legal action to prove that you were also a victim of injustice.

This haze of nuances is relatively recent. The word victim enters the language courtesy of the translators of the English college at Rheims, who published an English edition of the Bible in 1582 and who did little more than anglicise the Latin word victima, which meant a sacrificial offering. Its connotations are at first simple - powerlessness, fatality, subjection to some higher purpose or motive.

But it is too strong a word to remain undiluted3 by figurative uses for long. The fatal implications quickly disappear, along with the ideas of religious sacrifice; and from the late 17th century on it pretty much becomes what it is today, a generalised term for a sufferer, of anything from malice to a massacre.

Victimise, in the sense of singling someone out for bad treatment, is around from the early 19th century and victimhood, an identifiable status of suffering, comes soon after. In the Fifties and Sixties, though, there are more interesting changes.

In 1958 the New Statesman proposed that 'we ought to establish a new science of victimology, with chairs at the universities, field workers studying the effects rather than the causes of crime and a special department assessing the impact of sex crime on women'. The concept of the victimless crime arrives at around the same time in discussions of law and order.

There is a profound shift here, from a morality in which we offend against God or against society (a morality in which you can be hanged for a lamb just as well as a sheep) to one in which the consequences may adjust the nature of your guilt.

At the same time, the nature of what it is to be a victim has changed, too. The terms of admission have broadened, so that even a moderately quick-witted defence lawyer will find a way to represent his client as a 'victim of society', and an inescapable edge of contempt has tainted the word.

A top Hollywood executive recently demonstrated the thinking that led to this change in a brutally memorable phrase: 'If you're not part of the steamroller,' he said, 'you're part of the road.' That everyone had a choice was simply taken as read.

Indeed, to say of someone, witheringly, 'He's just a victim', is not to describe a pitiable condition but to pass a moral judgement. In discussions of domestic violence and in areas of psycho-babble the 'victim mentality' has been used to describe a passivity which encourages aggression. In this sense being a victim is something you decide to do, or stop doing.

These are entirely contradictory meanings, one reinforcing personal culpability and the other diminishing it. Unconsciously or not, the writer who described Vitas Gerulaitis as a 'victim of cocaine' was tactfully trying to ignore the fact that there are no recorded instances of the drug hiding in a dark alley and forcing itself up a passer-by's nose.

The implication was that the tennis star, a likeable man, shouldn't be held fully responsible for his own actions. In this sense we need a new definition of victimisation - one that would describe the widespread process of converting a sinner into the one sinned against. It also provokes the thought Victim Support groups might bend their minds to finding a better word for those on the receiving end of crime, one less blurred by implications of evasion and helplessness.

1 From the Latin accidere, to fall, happen. Originally the word referred simply to an event or incident.

2 From the Latin specere, to look. Spectrum at first meant an apparition or spectre before its use as a scientific term.

3 From the Latin diluere, to wash away or dissolve. Cf. lavare, to wash.