01:09, December 07 258 0 theguardian.com

2018-12-07 01:09:07
Steven Poole's word of the week  ‘Contempt’ of parliament: aren't we all guilty of that?

This week, the government was found to be in contempt of parliament for not releasing the full legal advice on Brexit. But why exactly is it “contempt” rather than scorn, ridicule, or contumely?

The Latin contemnere, to condemn, derives ultimately from the Greek for “to cut”. The metaphor of negative judgments as cutting emotions, then, goes back all the way. From the early 17th century, the specifically legal use of “contempt” – as in contempt of parliament and contempt of court – has denoted flagrant disobedience or disrespect to the institutions of authority. (In 1722, according to an OED citation, it was possible to be convicted of contempt by not removing one’s hat in front of the magistrates.)

Charles Darwin, in his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) noted that contempt came in various degrees. “Extreme contempt, or, as it is often called, loathing contempt, hardly differs from disgust,” he wrote. One could hardly fault Theresa May for feeling that way about her own backbenchers, but that in itself should not be a crime. Indeed, if holding parliament and its antics in revulsion, repugnance, odium, and execration were really illegal, few of us would escape conviction.