James Bulger / Words: Evil

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HOWEVER often we may argue about why two small boys came to commit murder, we end by agreeing that what was done was evil, which is as much as to say that we still don't know the answer. (Milton spent 15 years composing Paradise Lost to try to explain evil's origin, and even he failed.)

This is no doubt why the word itself has retained its power for more than 800 years, despite attempts to trivialise it. There are a few words - sweet is perhaps another - of which this can be said.

'Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil,' wrote St Paul, according to the 1611 translation. Whatever the coppersmith's offence, it was plainly not on a par with what Satan was believed to have done in Eden, which was also evil. But in the 16th and 17th centuries, evil was a versatile word. It did for everything between the unspeakable and the mildly inconvenient. You could apply it to such commonplace things as bad meat, or say 'These eggs are evil', and even 100 years ago it could mean merely 'unlucky', which was all people meant when they complained of some possibly minor annoyance having happened 'in an evil hour'.

In our own time the definition has narrowed; unless we are being slightly old-fashioned, we seldom use evil for such occasions. It has has actually gained strength. We keep it in store, so that when we do bring it out we really are indignant and frightened. The same can hardly be said of its near-synonym wicked, a big word in its heyday, when it was probably more damning of a person than evil, but now so debased that it can quite properly be used of nothing more terrible than a mischievous grin. When children say 'wicked]' they most likely mean 'delightful'.

That is the more usual way with words - the strong ones are the most vulnerable. Sin and sinful might still have struck awe in us as they once did, but they imply a belief, not universally held, in the existence of divine law. Evil remains our only word for humankind at its worst.