Words: Indiscretion

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The Independent Online
IN A clarion call for morality and virtue, the chairman of the Head Masters' Conference has suggested that public figures 'caught in an untruth or an indiscretion' should resign without question. It was bravely said, but the trumpet was giving an uncertain sound.

It was that word indiscretion that struck the wrong note. It comes from an extended family of words descended from the Latin discernere - to distinguish - and all concerned with personal judgement; indiscretion was simply the lack of it, and an indiscretion was any injudicious act. It probably wasn't until the middle of the 18th century that it became a delicate little euphemism, and acquired the hint of turpitude, or vice, that it has today. Surely modern, straight-talking public school headmasters would have preferred something more robust than this milk-and-water word? However, it wasn't its mere prissiness that was the trouble: like most prissy words, indiscretion is designedly ambivalent.

For discreet and discretion have also changed course. Instead of a sort of level-headed prudence, which is what they used to be about, they now most often imply secrecy. A discreet distance is what you keep when anxious not to be observed; a discreet bribe is one that doesn't look like one to the casual onlooker. The Prayer Book says people shouldn't marry to satisfy their carnal lusts like beasts, but reverently and 'discreetly'. In 1662 this meant that spouses should be moderate in their lovemaking. Today, if it means anything, it means that they should refrain from coupling in public.

Similarly, indiscretion not only means a naughty act. It also means being rash enough to be found out. I am sure that Roy Chapman, the HMC chairman, was thinking only of the first of these meanings when he referred to the cases of two adulterous MPs who had resigned by popular demand, but inevitably it carries a smell of the second: it was only because they were guilty of the lesser sin that they found themselves being accused of the greater. Thus doublethink reigns.