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01 August 2007 @ 00:55

There are two serious errors in the sentence below, which appeared in an article by Oakland Ross in the July 30 issue of the Toronto Star:

Even the peccadilloes of former Israeli president Moshe Katsav – who recently pleaded guilty to several charges of sexual harassment and rape – would have gone unreported here.

First, the error of fact: Katsav did not plead guilty to rape. The rape charge against him was dropped, and his plea bargain includes only various lesser charges, including indecent acts and sexual harassment.

Second, the error in judgement: Rape is not a peccadillo. Neither are the other crimes to which Katsav actually did agree to plead guilty. What's a peccadillo?

A small or venial fault or sin; a trifling offence.
A slight offense.
A small sin or fault.

A stunningly inappropriate word to use in this context. Rape is not small, or trifling, or venial, or slight, and to write about it as if it were contributes, in some small way, to a cultural climate in which men are less afraid to commit rape than they should be and women are more afraid to report it than they should have any reason to be. (Why hesitate to commit a trifling offence to satisfy an urge? Why put yourself through further hell to assert before a jury that you were the object of someone's venial sin?)

Why would Ross choose such a word, then? Not out of any deliberate intent to trivialize rape, I trust. Rather, I can imagine Ross casting about for a colourful word to highlight the fact that the reason Katsav's crimes were not discussed in the ultra-Orthodox community of Mea Shearim was that they were specifically sexual offences. (The community's attitude is apparently along the lines of No sex, please; we're Haredim, although that fails to account for their remarkably high birth rate.) And, as everyone knows, sex = sin, so Ross picks peccadillo (< Lat. peccare, 'to sin'; "a pleasantly satisfying word to say"), evidently not noticing that he has sacrificed sense for connotation and euphony.

This is speculation, of course, but it's difficult to see how else this error might have come about. Suppose Katsav had committed some non-sexual form of assault—for example, that he had punched a woman in the face. Would Ross or any other reporter whose work you've read be likely to call that a peccadillo? I very much doubt it. But as soon as sex comes into the picture, a bad act becomes a naughty act, and the nudging and winking and giggling commence.

frogofthelakes on 1. August, 2007 12:58 (UTC)
Well said. I hope you send this in to the paper.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 1. August, 2007 14:50 (UTC)

Thanks. I sent an e-mail to the Star's public editor the day the story appeared; so far there's been no response.

Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 3. August, 2007 21:34 (UTC)

I've just heard back from the public editor. The Star will run a corection of the factual error tomorrow; as for the other matter, the public editor writes, "I also shared your concerns about the choice of the word peccadilloes with our foreign editor who passed it on to our writer. In looking up the meaning in my Oxford dictionary, I must agree with you."

O.K.caprinus on 1. August, 2007 13:15 (UTC)
I read it as understatement.

"Even the pet peeves of Michael Vick would have gone unreported here."

"Even the retro chic of the Society of Creative Anachronism would have gone unreported here."

Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 1. August, 2007 14:48 (UTC)

I guess it's possible that the understatement was deliberate, but I don't quite understand why anyone would joke about something like that.

鉄観音isolt on 1. August, 2007 17:52 (UTC)
Describing the SCA as "retro chic" may well be the funniest thing I've heard all day.
love, play & inquiry: arrowtrochee on 1. August, 2007 18:39 (UTC)
he has sacrificed sense for connotation and euphony.
and sacrificed the dignity of the victims as well.

Well said and I hope that the writer and the editor gets a slap for this rather poor choice of words. Catching this sort of thing is what editors are for. Machines can do spellcheck.