Ensnared by “scandal”

Scandal ultimately comes from the Greek for a “spring trap.” 

With smoke continuing to billow from the White House over the Trump-Russia investigation, there’s something else in the air: the word scandal. What’s the etymological fire behind this word?

That’s a big scandal. (Pixabay)

Watch your step

The earliest evidence for scandal in English comes from an important 13th-century monastic manuscript called the Acrene Riwle. Here, scandal—or scandle in Middle English—refers to “discredit to a religion caused by irreligious conduct,” as the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology defines it. 

English borrowed scandal from the Middle French scandale via the Latin scandalum, a “cause for offense” or “stumbling-block.” The Latin scandalum, in turn, comes from the Greek σκάνδαλον (skandalon), also used as a “stumbling-block” but literally meaning a “snare for an enemy.” The original meaning of skandalon is a “spring trap,” though its metaphorical extension was already underway in antiquity.

Etymologists root skandalon in the Proto-Indo-European root *skand-, “to leap” or “climb,” hence “spring trap.” This root also yields the Latin scandere, “to climb,” which gives English scan, ascend, descend, and transcend, among others, and the Latin scalae (stairs, ladder), source of scale.

Watch your language

Record of scandal in English essentially vanishes until the late 1500s, when it reappears in the New Testament of the Douay-Rheims Bible, an important English Catholic translation. Here, scandals variously denoted “an occasion of unbelief” or “moral lapse,” as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) glosses it, as well as, calling up its etymology, an “offense” or “stumbling-block.” 

Where did scandal go? Had it just been running a clean administration? In the meantime, scandal was actually slander. These words are two different forms of the same root.

The Latin scandalum also morphed into the French esclandre, which Middle English took up as sclaundre in the late 1200s. For a period, slander, like the original scandal, named “discredit, disgrace, or shame falling on a person on account of some transgression,” to paraphrase the OED. Early on, though, slander was already showing its modern meaning of “defamation,” and was losing its C during the 1300s.

Scandal and slander diverged by the time English re-borrowed scandal from the Latin scandalum in the 16th-century, explaining its modern spelling (vs. Middle English scandle) and re-emergence in the record as “offense” or “stumbling-block.” Slander went on to focus on the sense of “discredit” brought on by false statements while scandal, by the early 1600s, shifted to the “disgrace” brought on oneself by discreditable actions, as well as the rumors or outrage surrounding them.

As critics cry scandal over the ongoing revelations in Trumpland, Team Trump is crying slander. Etymologically, we might say they’re both right—but the law, like spring traps, has very sharp teeth.   

m ∫ r ∫


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