turpitude

Well, perhaps the sheen is coming off Charlie. He’s been dumped, Warner Brothers citing a clause that lets them off the hook if he commits “a felony offense involving moral turpitude.”

Ah, turpitude. This is not some mere dotting of the tease and crossing of the eyes (that would be Ben Turpin-tude); this is a high-toned vituperation, one that fairly spits from its three voiceless stops (though, from the charming side, it does sound like a tapdance at the Cotton Club). Turpitude is at the other end of the scale from a friend of mine who, when chastising herself for some oversight, says “Toopid, toopid, toopid!” (onset cluster reduction being an easy index of intellectual insufficiency). But turpitude is not per se undue stupidity, nor is it a sort of torpor. It is a rupture with prudity and piety, an impertinent attitude that may lead to pruritus and penitentiaries. It is a sort of moral turpentine, stripping the thin coating of respectability to show the true colours beneath.

Oh, yes, moral. You almost always see moral before turpitude, even though it’s quite redundant; turpitude comes from Latin turpis, “base” (as in “low”), and if baseness is not a moral character (or lack thereof), what is? Indeed, one may say those of base character, those who lie, are of the character of lye, a base, and are abased by the corrosion as they try to whitewash their dirty deeds. But that leaves us nowhere with turpentine, which is not acid or base, though it is corrosive, as of course (and of coarseness) is turpitude.

One may also, mind you, say that turpitude is wickedness (another moral judgment), and that will put us in mind of other things that are wicked, such as lamp oil and candles – oh, and to wax poetic, the great quatrain of that wonderful wanton poet of turpitude, Edna St. Vincent Millay:

My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –
It gives a lovely light.

Well, one doesn’t always want to make light of turpitude, even if it may involve a spectacular flame-out (and even if turpentine is flammable – oh, by the way, turpentine is not actually related to turpitude; it comes from terebinth, the Greek name for the kind of tree whose sap was originally distilled to make it). No, we must remember that it tends to take the sheen off things – and, if rests on your skin, you may experience excoriation.

One response to “turpitude

  1. Pingback: torpid, torpor | Sesquiotica

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