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Brandon Robshaw's English Usage


I've just been re-reading Iris Murdoch's A Fairly Honourable Defeat, and was struck by the following sentence: "She would be cold and hard and purposeful and vile."

That's a good sentence, isn't it? I like the way it comes crashing down on that heavy, emotive word "vile". But vile didn't always mean what it means today. Today it means utterly foul, loathsome, sickening and disgusting. It suggests an emotional attitude of visceral repulsion. Clearly it already had that meaning or something close to it when Iris Murdoch wrote the above line, in 1970.

But a few centuries ago it simply meant worthless, of no value. The words "in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body" occur in the Church of England burial service (taken from St Paul's Epistles, but translated into English by King James I's 47 scholars, or at least one of them, in 1611); and there "vile" does not seem to mean disgusting, but imperfect or low-grade. In 1819, Bishop Reginald Heber wrote the hymn "From Greenland's Icy Mountains", which includes the line "Every prospect pleases, and only man is vile"; here again the word doesn't seem to mean loathsome so much as low, common or base.

It's interesting to note that the phrase corpus vile (i.e. vile body in Latin) used to be used to refer to the bodies of animals that were dissected in scientific experiments: they were "vile" in the sense of being dispensable, without value.

I notice, by the way, the word "despise" has recently undergone a similar journey. Within memory it used to mean to look down on, but now it is far more commonly used to mean loathe or detest.

Dr Brandon Robshaw lectures for the Open University in Philosophy, Creative Writing and Children’s Literature. He has written several children’s books including a philosophical YA novel, The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers. He and his family starred in BBC2’s Back in Time for Dinner. You can find his website here.

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