Word Of The Week: Recidivism
The English language is akin to a serial thief, equipping itself for the present by plundering the past. Even when coining neologisms, it often re-purposes linguistic stolen goods. Such lexicographic larceny would be reprehensible, save for the crime’s constructive consequences. The word recidivism is itself a delightfully salient example of such repeated, but useful theft!
We’ve only to look at the etymology of the word to convict our suspect. Meaning to relapse into a previous condition, or mode of behaviour, especially into criminal conduct, this noun is derived from the Medieval Latin recidīvāre
meaning to relapse into sin, or crime.
Image by Klaus Hausmann from Pixabay
However our modern word is in fact borrowed from the nineteenth century French récidiver
, meaning to reappear, though our cousins across the Channel were referencing the recurrence of a medical condition such as a tumour, rather than a crime.
In modern English, recidivism
is defined as the act of a person repeating an undesirable behaviour, having experienced the unwelcome consequences of that behaviour. However, the word offers those employing it legitimate plasticity.
Criminologists and lawyers apply it strictly to repeat offenders, measuring such patterns in a bid to champion restorative justice and societal efforts to rehabilitate prisoners. Authors, on the other hand, play with its connotations of repeated moral delinquency, or habitual self-harm. Both are handling stolen goods!