Sometimes a once-illustrious institution has lost its lustre. Perhaps (by way of illustration) its leader has been too great a luster, for power or money or luxury or adulation or adulteration; perhaps there has been less lucidity than one would like. The loutishness of the lotharios has gotten many into a lather of loathing for the leadership and its acolytes. It will all need to be laved, washed clean like the Augean stables, but more than that: it cannot have a mere whitewash; it must have performative purification. There must be a lustration.

Lustration is a word not often seen or heard, though it’s certainly not without occasion for use. One problem is that it sounds too much like a number of other words that don’t mean the same: lust and luster and lustre and illustration all leap to mind, and while the first two are not related to lustration the latter two may be. But while something that has had a lustration may seem sparkling clean and picture-perfect under illumination, that’s not what lustration means.

A lustration is, in the old and original sense, a rite of purification, especially of washing. Sometimes it’s more of a symbolic washing, or even a sacrifice, but it can also be a good and proper cleansing. And from that comes a more modern and figurative sense: to quote Wiktionary, “The restoration of credibility to a government by the purging of perpetrators of crimes committed under an earlier regime.” Not just slapping a new coat of paint on the walls and some perpetrators on the wrists, and not just making an example of one or two while letting the rest remain unexemplary; getting rid of all of them, and dealing with them according to their deserving. You can see where such a word could come into play from time to time.

But how has this word, which looks so lustrous and illustrative, taken a left turn to the lavabo and perhaps the guillotine? It comes from Latin lustratio, which is derived from lustro and ultimately lustrum, which refers to a purificatory sacrifice; it most likely is related to luo and lavo, both of which mean ‘I wash’ (they’re originally two versions of the same word); trace those back to Proto-Indo-European and you find the source of words to do with washing, including such as lather. But it may also (or alternatively) be related to luceo, ‘I shine’, source of words such as lucid; luceo traces to a Proto-Indo-European root that has as descendants words such as illustrationillustrious, lustre, luxury, light, and even leukemia and lynx. The evident fact that illustro (‘I elucidate’ or ‘I illuminate’ or ‘I make illustrious’) is formed from the same lustro as lustration gives some weight to this derivation.

It’s not too hard to see how brightness and cleanness can be related, anyway. As they say, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” But a good scouring with soap, and a removal of those who made it dirty in the first place, can only help.

One response to “lustration

  1. I seem to remember a campaign slogan, maybe generic, or maybe New York City in the early 60s: “a new broom sweeps clean.”

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