Friday, 3 February 2012
Since Fred Goodwin (the erstwhile Sir Fred Goodwin) is currently being pitied as much as he was previously vilified, now is a good time to look again at that wonderful word ‘scapegoat’. This first appears in William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible (1530), and as ‘scape-goote’ is used as a translation for Azazel. In the Mosaic ritual for the Day of Atonement, two goats were chosen, and lots were cast as to what would happen to them, one being sacrificed, while the other was ‘cast out into the wilderness’ (general purpose Biblical term) carrying the sins of the people. The second was the ‘scape-goat’, literally ‘the one which escaped’. Except that ‘scapegoat’ by the nineteenth century had come to mean what it means now, which is exactly the opposite – the one that does not escape, but gets caught, punished and carries the sins of the others, a triple-whammy. ‘Scape’ and ‘escape’ being the same word, an ‘escapade’ is perhaps ‘something you get away with’, or as the OED puts it, ‘a flighty piece of conduct’.
Has Mr Goodwin been ‘deknighted’ or, following the pattern in use in Twitter and Facebook – ‘unfollow’ and ‘unfriend’, has he been ‘unknighted’? Or, since he is usually described as having been ‘stripped of his knighthood’, does the term ‘defrock’ cover his demotion to the rank of plebeian? Has the recent England football captain been ‘demoted’, ‘dismissed’ or ‘decaptained’, or even ‘uncaptained’? ‘Demotion’ sounds faintly disrespectful to the status of his team-mates. ‘Relieved of the captaincy’ carries all the understated irony that made England great. ‘Defrocking’, by the way, dates from the late nineteenth century, and depends on the usage of ‘frock’ to mean the cassock worn by the Anglican clergy. A frock is essentially an outer article of clothing, now with rather frivolous connotations, but previously quite serious, as in a frock coat or even a frock of mail (chain–mail). Defrocking someone in chain-mail would be a serious business.