or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Bad Boy

In the newest installment of the sex-advice column Savage Love, Dan Savage wrote the following sentence:

Oh, you may have raised some false hopes in the folks you were chatting with, or helped circulate pictures that the original owners may not have wanted passed around, but those are venal sins.

My first thought after reading this was, "Well, he's not Catholic." But he is! Or was! He even met the pope!

So how on Earth could he mistake "venal" for "venial"? There can hardly be two words which, despite their remarkable similarity, are so different in meaning, and while the average joe on the street might mix them up, you'd hardly think someone with a Catholic education could.

"Venal" means, in its most literal sense, "to be had for a price", as it's from Latin "venum", "sale", the source of French "vendre", "to sell", and thence into English as "vend". It's usually used to refer to people who can be bribed---who sell themselves to the highest bidder--and in an extended sense to anyone corrupt.

"Venial", on the very other hand, means "forgivable", from the Latin "venia", "forgiveness" (as far as I know, it has no other offspring in English). A bad person is venal; a minor sin is venial. (Let's not mistake either of these words for "venery", either. That word, meaning "sexual activity", comes from "Venus", the Roman goddess of love, and is also seen in the disappearing term "venereal disease")

The opposite of venial, by the way, is "mortal"; that is to say, a sin that is not only not forgivable without outside help, but which will lead to the death of the soul if not confessed and purged. According to this page, if you are involved in surrogate motherhood, "excessive" gambling (bingo good, Vegas bad, I suppose), or nipple-piercing, you're headed straight to hell. Have fun. See you there. "Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company," as Mark Twain used to say.


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