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moral turpitude

October 1, 2012

In an article in today’s Indie, Yasmin Alhibai-Brown came up with this: ‘In the past, educationalists were expected to exercise “moral turpitude” even at university’.

In the context, it’s clear that what she means is that tutors were expected to keep their lustful hands off the students. But turpitude doesn’t mean rectitude, as she seems to think. It means baseness, vileness or depravity.

It’s a quaint, old-fashioned phrase. The only other usage of it I can call to mind is in PG Wodehouse’s ‘The Love that Purifies’. In that story, a Mr Anstruther has devised a system for awarding points for good conduct to two boys who are staying in the house with him, and Bertie Wooster quizzes him about it:

‘ “And how do you react to what I might call general moral turpitude?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Well, I mean when the thing doesn’t affect you personally? Suppose one of them did something to me, for instance? Set a booby-trap or something? Or, shall we say, put a toad or so in my bed?” ‘

From the way Alhibai-Brown puts it in scare quotes it’s clear she’s aware it’s no longer in common usage; but in that case, why on earth didn’t she check the meaning? And why didn’t a sub correct it? People don’t use dictionaries enough, that’s the problem. 

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3 Comments
  1. Ah, poor our sex! This fault in us I find,
    The error of our eye directs our mind.
    What error leads must err; O then conclude,
    Minds swayed by eyes are full of turpitude.

    from Troilus and Cressida

  2. E. E. “Doc” Smith uses it wrongly in his pulp sf Skylark novels. Which had me using it wrongly for years… 

    /@

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