As you scan the lines of a gossip rag for whatever your enquiring mind wants to know, and some scandal crosses your eyes, some shame or infamy, are you actually seeking to be scandalized? Do you take Schadenfreude in Schande, do you want to be offended?

Certainly some people do like to take offense, and to find it where it can be found. I remember an intermittent character on the sitcom Barney Miller who was ever looking for the shady side – his name was Scanlon, and I have always thought they picked that name because of the echoes of scam and scandal.

Is there any sort of negative phonaesthetic kick to that /skæ/ onset? Aside from scandal and its derivatives and scam, we see it in in scab, scad, skag, scamp, scan, scant, skank, and scat. Most of those have some negative tinge, though scad does not and scamp often does not. And scan? Generally not, though it does put me in mind of Hamlet’s

that would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge!

When I first read it, I thought he was using scann’d to mean something negative (rather like rotten or vicious), but actually he’s running through the scansion of the situation – and finding that it doesn’t meter out: the “to heaven” hangs over onto another line. What, a line in Shakespeare that doesn’t make the meter? Scandalous!

One need not seek in such obscure places for scandal in plays, of course; it makes some very good theatre generally. Indeed, a famous play of a sesquicentury or so after Shakespeare is The School for Scandal by Sheridan, and in the times in between – especially during the Restoration – there were many plays that trafficked the stage almost exclusively with the comings and goings of scandalous behaviour. Nor has the appetite let up; from Desperate Housewives to the nightly news, we like to be scandalized.

And how would you define scandalize? Does it mean “offend”? Certainly you can find that equivalency in the Bible, for instance, as Bill Whitla pointed out to me (and others) today: in Matthew 13:57, where one usually reads that Jesus’s townsfolk were offended by what he was teaching, the Greek source uses a conjugation of the verb σκανδαλίζειν skandalizein, which might suggest that they were really scandalized – that’s much juicier than just being offended, isn’t it? Can you be scandalized without whispering amongst yourselves, for instance?

But we should bear in mind that that Greek origin is a word for a snare or a trap, used metaphorically to refer to a stumbling block or offense. Scandal appeared in English first in reference to irreligious behaviour bringing discredit. Now it refers to shocking people by some violation of propriety or morality. But propriety has broadened in its scope. And the liking some people have for breaches of propriety is rather indecent – it’s scandalous how much they seek to be scandalized! (Ooo!)

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