…and we’re back!
After a three-week hiatus caused by the vicissitudes of modern life, a feeling of guilt has washed over me and the only way to towel it off it to write something. A combination of traveling and writing reports for which I get paid (and although I prefer the fun of The Etyman Language Blog, that won’t but me food or fix my motorcycle) has kept me too busy to update my posts. Mea culpa.
I’m not criminally guilty. As far as I am aware, there’s no law that forces me to update my blog, so the arrival of a fully armed SWAT team is not something I need to be worrying about. The sense of guilt I have arises from an internally developed sense of duty to both myself and my seven readers. Well, maybe it’s eight. Whatever the number, I only have myself to blame for the guilt because if I’d been smart enough never to have started this blogging adventure following my 50th birthday, I’d be free to do other things that are less stressful.
According to the OED, guilt is;
A failure of duty, delinquency; offence, crime, sin.
In my case, missed posts could be considered delinquent, but hardly criminal, and certainly not sinful – unless there was an 11th commandment written on the third tablet of stone that Moses dropped on his way down. Freud was hot on the notion of guilt as being related to sin, to the point that in his Civilization and its Discontents (1931), he argued that the guilt/sin relationship was a tool that religions use to keep the faithful in check:
The different religions have never overlooked the part played by the sense of guilt in civilization. What is more, they come forward with a claim…to save mankind from this sense of guilt, which they call sin.
According to Herant Katchadourian in his fascinating book, guilt is the bite of conscience. The good news here is that if I am feeling guilty, then I must have a conscience! Thank God for that – I was beginning to wonder…
The word as a noun pops up as an Old English word, gylt, in the Blickling Homilies of 1150 in reference to a passage dating even further back to around 971:
Þonne onfoþ hie forgifnesse ealra heora gylta æt urum Drihtne.
However, the verb form, meaning “to commit an offense, trespass, or sin” turns up in The Vespasian Psalter in the sentence “Swoete & reht dryten fore ðissum aee gesette gyltendum in wege.” The base verb is gyltan and seems to have no equivalents in other Germanic languages. It sounds a little like the German geld meaning gold, which is turn is hypothesized to have its origins in the Old Germanic *geld- meaning “to pay,” but it seems a bit of a stretch to tie “paying” with “failing in duty.”
So where might it have come from? Or in case the Grammar Police are checking up on me, from where might it have come?
Looking at instances where Old English has been changed to Latin, we find that gylt is rendered as debitum in The Lord’s Prayer, and gultiȝ turns up as debet in the Gospel of Matthew. So here’s where there’s a case to be made for guilt having the sense of debt – something you owe. And certainly feeling guilty because you have failed to deliver what was owed doesn’t appear too way out.
If we accept this – and you’re always free to disagree – then we can find some similar Germanic family words related to debt. Old English has the word scyld meaning crime, sin, or just plain guilt, which in turn is cognate with Old Norse skuld, Old Saxon sculd, and Old High German scult, all of which also have the sense of debt or bondage.
It turns out to be a fairly promiscuous word in that it seems happy to spread itself about a bit amongst the different parts of speech. As well as being the noun and verb guilt, and the common adjective guilty, it can easily become the adverb guiltily. You can also talk about someone having guiltiness (noun) and being guiltful (adjective). If you then factor in its opposite forms, by sticking on the suffix -less you can add guiltless, guiltlessly, and guiltlessness to your vocabulary.
And it would be remiss of me to pass up the opportunity to mention how the word is used in the phrase, “guilty pleasure.” Although the OED doesn’t include it, The Corpus of Historical American English has a citation from 1817 in Francis August Cox’s Female Scriptures Biographies: Volume 1:
In our alarm we forget God, think it “strange,” brood with a melancholy, but guilty pleasure, over our sufferings, and act as if we thought that “God had forgotten to be gracious.”
A “guilty pleasure” is an activity or object that someone finds pleasurable but that also induces a sense of guilt because it is in some way “wrong.” There’s also the sense that the guilty pleasure is something shared by others who feel similar guilt. Thus, admitting you like to watch trashy TV reality shows is seen as a guilty pleasure whereas admitting you like abducting children is a criminal activity. The sense of “wrongness” is typically a social phenomenon and not a statutory felonious action. Again, stealing a car may be pleasurable to some, but it doesn’t qualify as a guilty pleasure.
Guilty pleasures are relative and can change over time. I used to consider watching Ren and Stimpy cartoons as a guilty pleasure, but now I count is merely as a pleasure – there’s now no guilt involved. And originally, smoking was a pleasure, then a criminal activity, and now a guilty pleasure. Twenty years ago, looking at the 16-year-old glamor models on page 3 of the UK’s Sun newspaper is a guilty pleasure for a Brit, but opening your copy of the Sun when you got off the plane in Newark Liberty airport was a felony offense for being in possession of child pornography!