• turpitude •
têr-pê-tyud • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, mass (no plural)
Meaning: Moral degeneracy, depravity.
Notes: If you need the sense of this word in an adjective, turpitudinous is the one you want. You may add the suffix -ly to use it as an adverb.
In Play: To lose tenure at a US university, you must be found guilty of "moral turpitude". Since this phrase is redundant, however, scholars have explored the world for other types of possible turpitude: "Despite having tenure, Seamus Allgood was dismissed from the university for intellectual turpitude". (I credit this phrase to John Barth, who used it, I think first, in his 1966 novel about academia, Giles Goat-Boy.) Without a modifier, turpitude always refers to moral decay: "We see a swelling wave of turpitude in society today, and far too many people trying to surf it."
Word History: Today's Good Word comes to us via French from Latin turpitudo "ugliness, deformity; turpitude", a noun based on turpis "ugly, filthy". We can see the semantic trail of this word, which seems to lead from "deformity" to "ugliness" to "moral ugliness". The fact that the word once meant "deformity", suggests that it might be related to a little used Latin verb, trepidare "to shake, be agitated", and may have originally meant "shaken". But this is mostly speculation. We do know that turpitude is no relation of turpentine. That word came to English from Old French terebentine, the natural descendant of Latin terebinthina. This word refers to the tree whose resin originally produced turpentine, the terebinth tree.
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