words: sin

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The Independent Online

THERE IS, as St Peter remarked, a multitude of sins. One of the shortest and oldest words in English, a sin was originally an infringement of the divine law, but it now means also breaking the laws of football (hence the sin-bin) or merely being a poor housekeeper ("The way she wastes that bread, it's a sin"). So it was rather nice to hear the venerable word restored to health and strength last week with that outcry against the Bishop of Edinburgh, who was reported (inaccurately, he claimed) to have said that adultery wasn't much of a sin, promiscuity being human.

What his critics were saying was that they believed in old-fashioned sin and that the oldest ones were still the best, as it were. St Jerome would have applauded. He liked to think that Adam and Eve hadn't had sex before they tasted the fatal apple. The saintly but susceptible 13th-century preacher Jacques de Vitry declared that women were as lewd as vipers and slippery as eels, and Milton made a seducer of angels and the paramour of Satan, a satyriacal hag with "scaly folds" below the waist. All very quaint; but a little of it sticks.

The OED says the expression "for my sins", which one still hears in pubs, "is frequently employed in a trivial or jocular way" and this is true. But behind that cliche lurks the solemn belief that a sin is something you have to do penance for.

King James I thought the root of all sins was drunkenness. He didn't mean it was the worst, only that it led to others worse still. Nowadays it might be a plea in mitigation. ("My client was unaware of the consequences of his actions.") I should like to have the Bishop's views on that.