Words: Treachery

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THE ARREST of the CIA man Aldrich Ames as a spy for the KGB, raising ghosts most Americans thought had been exorcised long ago, sent me back to Rebecca West's beautifully researched The Meaning of Treason, first published in 1949, and written in a perpetual state of controlled rage; and I could not help noticing that when her horror of the subject is at its greatest she doesn't say 'treason'. She calls it 'treachery'.

In the late Middle Ages there were two sorts of treason: petty treason for private betrayals, high treason for action against the state. Since then the word by itself has generally been taken to mean the high sort. It is absolutely the right word for the crimes Rebecca West wrote about, as it is for those attributed to Aldrich Ames.

Treachery covers much wider ground, and is meant for any sort of despicable deception, whether of the state or of an intimate friend, having come from an old French word for trickery. (Treason has a quite different derivation - it came originally from the Latin tradere, to hand over, as did traitor and betrayal.)

Why does Rebecca West, and indeed some journalists today in their coverage of the Ames case, use the more general word when a more precise one is to hand? After all, almost anyone or anything can be called treacherous. Thin ice, or a crumbling precipice, or even the weather, are often so described. Yet there is no doubt that treachery is the more evocative word of the two, a better vehicle for indignation.

There was a time when to betray one's sovereign, and by implication one's country, was the worst of crimes, worse than murder. The waters were clearer then. E M Forster was among those who muddied them when he said that if he had to choose between betraying his friend and his country 'he hoped he would have the guts to betray his country' and he spoke for many. For them, treachery can be a greater cause of scandal than anything that treason can do.