06/07/2013 08:27 am ET

What's So Scandalous About Scandals?

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said the fatal attacks on American diplomats in Benghazi could lead to President Barack Obama's impeachment during a radio interview on The Rusty Humphries Show. Said Inhofe, without the slightest homage to U.S. political history, "People may be starting to use the I-word before too long." For Inhofe, Benghazi is the greatest scandal of our time. Greater than the Pentagon Papers, greater than Iran-Contra, greater than oral sex in the Oval Office, greater than the greatest of all in recent memory, Watergate, except, maybe, for the Profumo Affair. How soon we forget. Add to that "scandal" the IRS "scandal" and we have multiple "scandals" that could compare with the greatest "scandal" in human history. But what makes a scandal a scandal? And why is there such opprobrium is attached to it? Are scandals really that scandalous?

I began to ponder just what the word scandal actually meant, which naturally led me to the Oxford English Dictionary, which indicates the etymology of the word coming from ecclesiastical Latin scandalum, a cause of offense or stumbling. The Greek σκάνδαλον, recorded only in Hellenistic literature, in the fig. sense 'snare for an enemy, cause of moral stumbling', but certainly an old word meaning 'trap.' In the 16th century it was re-adopted from the Latin in the form scandal, possibly after the French learned form scandale, which had been introduced to represent the strict sense of ecclesiastical Latin scandalum, as distinguished from the senses that had been developed by French esclandre. German skandal (which has developed the sense of 'uproar'), and the Dutch schandaal.

Perhaps in German and Dutch there might be something of an uproar associated with the word scandal since Germans and Dutch might have more to be uproarish about than others. Perhaps, while legal prostitution and use of marijuana could be considered scandalous for most Americans, not so for Germans and Dutch. So, the entire notion of what constitutes a scandal is debatable, but on purely etymological grounds, even Watergate went beyond the notion what constitutes a scandal. It's apparent that we've taken the word to mean something more than it actually means. Roget calls it a "public embarrassment" and then indicates that some of the synonyms include, but are not limited to: backbiting, backstabbing, dirty linen, eavesdropping, gossip, hearsay, idle rumor, rumor, skeleton in closet, and wrongdoing, none of which seem to remotely reflect something as egregious as Watergate. Certainly, the Clinton-Lewinsky debacle was a public embarrassment and in strictly etymological terms, was a 'stumble' for Clinton. In that minor sense, then, it could be called a scandal.

However, it's apparent that the word scandal has become something altogether different than what it's been historically. It would appear that what's needed is another word, a word that would distinguish what these scandals actually are. If Watergate was the benchmark for scandals then clearly there are major league scandals and minor league ones. But Watergate really went beyond the notion of a scandal in the etymological sense though it clearly was a public scandal. It seems that in terms of Watergate, the Benghazi and IRS kerfuffle aren't really much of a scandal at all. Maybe a better example of a scandal is Romney's recent quote about Hurricane Sandy that "I wish the hurricane hadn't happened when it did because it gave the president a chance to look presidential." Now there's a scandal you can believe in.