Word of the Day: Culpable

Word of the Day

Today’s word of the day, thanks to Word Genius, is culpable, an adjective meaning 1. “Deserving of blame,” or 2. “Responsible for a crime,” according to the website. Dictionary.com defines it as “deserving blame or censure; blameworthy.” Here is what www.etymonline.com says about the word: “late 13c., coupable, from Old French coupable (12c., Modern French coupable), from Latin culpabilis ‘worthy of blame,’ from culpare ‘to blame,’ from culpa ‘crime, fault, blame, guilt, error. De Vaan writes that this might be from a PIE root *kuolp- ‘to bend, turn’ (source also of Greek kolpos ‘bosom, lap;’ see gulf (n.)). According to his sources, ‘The original meaning of culpa is “a state of error” rather than “an error committed”.’ English (and for a time French) restored the first Latin -l- in later Middle Ages.”

Let me try to explain that last sentence. English has imported words from a host of other languages over the centuries, but the two languages which have contributed the most to the language are Latin and French. Of course, French is a Romance language, meaning that it descended, as it were, from Latin. So there are words in English which could reasonably have come from either language; the way we tell is by the first recorded use. In the case of culpable, the spelling of the first recorded use makes it clear that the word came from French. But at various times in the history of our language, Latin scholars have attempted to improve the language by “fixing” the spelling of words. Culpable is an example of this kind of effort. Another example is debt, which came into English as dette from French in the 13th century from dete, which came from Latin debitum, meaning “something owed.” Later, the Latin scholars changed the spelling to the modern debt because, obviously, it ought to have a –b in it, just like the Latin word. One big difference between the two words is that debt retained the pronunciation that was used when it first came into the language, except for the silencing of the final –e. On the other hand, culpable adopted a spelling pronunciation, adding the –l sound. Perhaps debt did not adopt a spelling pronunciation because it is extremely difficult to pronounce the –b and then the –t without a vowel in between. Try it. It sounds really dumb.

On this date in 1998, President William Jefferson Clinton stood before a room of reporters and made the famous assertion, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.” If you were born after 1990, or maybe after 1985, or maybe after 1980, you may not know the context for that particular famous quotation, so please let me explain.

Bill Clinton was president of the United States from 1993 to 2001 (the president’s term begins in the January after the election). During his first term, he was accused of sexual misconduct by a young woman from Arkansas, allegations which he denied. His wife initiated a campaign to impugn the character and reputation of the woman, Paul Jones, and the fact that she had big hair and a Southern accent made it a bit easier for the Clintons. In 1998, Jones sued the president, a suit which established a legal precedent that a sitting president could be sued for behavior that occurred outside of office. During his testimony, Clinton denied having had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, who had been an intern in the White House.

Lewinsky told a friend of hers, Linda Tripp, about the affair with Clinton and even revealed that she had semen from the president on a blue dress which was hanging in her closet. At one point, Lewinsky told Tripp that she was considering having the dress dry cleaned, but Tripp talked her out of it. Then, when Special Prosecutor expanded his investigations into the Clinton presidency, the blue dress was found in Lewinsky’s closet and tested; the determination was that the semen on the dress was indeed the product of President Bill Clinton.

If you have paid any attention to the current impeachment proceedings of Donald J. Trump, you have heard that the last time a president was impeached was about 22 years ago. And Clinton was impeached, but not for having “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky, although since that time the definition of rape has changed to include situations in which the man has an extreme power advantage of the woman, especially if he is older and she is young. Lewinsky was a 22-year-old intern in the White House, and Clinton was the president, so I’m not sure that I can imagine a more extreme power imbalance. At the time of the impeachment, Democrat supporters of Clinton (which means all of them) argued that you can’t impeach a president for having an affair, but that is not what the issue was. Clinton was impeached for lying to a grand jury, for lying about the affair he had with Ms. Lewinsky. And lying to a grand jury is a felony, as many people who have talked to grand juries can attest.

Clinton was not removed from office. He later admitted that he did have an affair with Monica Lewinsky. He also later paid Paula Jones $850,000 to settle the lawsuit she had filed against him (that’s almost a million dollars, which doesn’t seem like all that much today but was a good bit back in 1998). And according to Snopes, “On his last day in office in 2001, Clinton agreed to a five-year suspension of his Arkansas law license in order to head off any criminal charges for lying under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky.” The “last day in office” is significant because a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime, so it was really his last change to avoid being charged with the felony of lying.

Bill Clinton, when he was President of the United States, committed a crime for which most people would go to jail. He has admitted that he committed the crime. And yet he was allowed to remain president for two more years despite his being culpable.

The photo? “Pres. Bill Clinton emphatically denying having an affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, during a White House event with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at his side, on Jan. 26, 1998 Diana Walker—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images” (https://time.com/5120561/bill-clinton-monica-lewinsky-timeline/). I find that upright finger especially annoying.