THE word wicked has two faces, like the masks above the proscenium arch of theatres, one with a mouth turned down, the other up. Though the comic mask has been around a long time, it is much commoner than it used to be. "You wicked man" is a compliment not a brickbat; and for the under- 25s anything desirable is wicked, while the champion darts-player throws a wicked dart. Jonathan Aitken put on the tragic mask last week when he accused the Guardian of telling "wicked lies" about him. His anger seemed genuine enough, but I found myself unmoved, and at first wondered why. The old sense of the word has certainly lost some of its power to the smiling face next to it; but I don't think this was the real reason. (Nor was it because I might have agreed with the Guardian.)
It must have been because "wicked lie" is one of those automatic doublets nearly everyone uses - blissful ignorance, abject terror - whose attendant adjectives are mere idle hangers-on, and add nothing to the ignorance or terror in question. Admittedly some lies are worse than others, but if Mr Aitken really wanted to show how serious this one was he could have avoided the clich by deleting the wicked adjective or finding a better. (Malicious perhaps? Later, when he spoke of "the cancer of bent and twisted journalism", I did sit up; cancer is a frightener.)
It's odd that wicked, which in the Middle Ages had implied the deepest turpitude, should by the Renaissance (when poets would call Cupid "the wicked boy") have become enfeebled by jokiness. As the age of faith receded perhaps our guilt receded with it, and we could make light of it. Now, as I say, as often as not it's a word of admiration, or even an exclamation of joy.
Nicholas BagnallReuse content