Scandals and Challenges


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SOUTH Africa is no stranger to scandal in high places, and the Inkathagate controversy is just the latest episode in a long-running saga.

But although we might appear to be cornering the market in scandal, we certainly did not invent it – at least in the etymological sense.

The word itself has quite an honour-able history dating back to ancient Greece, developing its modern sense through the influence of Old French and the days of chivalry.

Hellenistic literature used the word figuratively in the sense of a ‘snare for an enemy, or a cause of moral stumbling’.

Literally it meant a trap, or the spring of a trap, and the sense of springing or leaping is reflected in the Latin deriva-tive ‘scandere’- to climb.

By the 16th Century, ‘scandal’ had be-come part of the language of chivalry, having a kinship with the word challenge (Old French ‘chalenge’) which was originally applied to an accusation and thus a summons to trail by combat.

Challenge is ultimately derived from the Latin ‘calumnia’, meaning false accusation, with the modern English ‘calumny’ closely resembling the original meaning.

Spoken calumny is slander, an even closer reaction of scandal, both words having a common ancestor in ‘esclandre’, the Old French rendering of the original Greek.

Written calumny becomes libel, de-rived from ‘libellus’ – a little book, the connection being the pamphlets which were used to spread ‘scandal’.

Scandal also had a strict religious meaning – ‘something that hinders reception of the faith or obedience to the Divine Law’.

Perhaps in that sense it is not so far re-moved from the legal disobedience which has prompted South Africa’s current scandal.

Cold comfort for those involved, but long before ‘skande’ was invented in our part of the world the Greeks already had a word for it.

- Wordsworth


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