Word of the Week
“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,” said Jesus, “for you have hidden these things from the wise and keen of understanding, and you have revealed them to INNOCENTS.” It’s hard to translate the Greek noun NEPIOS there: CHILDREN, or BABES – with the suggestion that they do not know things, as in our phrase BABES IN THE WOODS. The early Modern English SILLY might do, with its ambiguous range from BLESSED to INNOCENT to FOOLISH. And we can’t count out FOOLS. That’s what Homer calls Odysseus’ hungry men, who killed and ate the cattle of the sun god: NEPIOI, FOOLS, or as my old colleague at Nameless College called them, NINNIES.
Our English word INNOCENT covers a lot of ground. In the legal sense it means NOT GUILTY, which is no great praise. It may also suggest, ironically, that you don’t know something you ought to know, as someone might say of a politician that he is INNOCENT of the slightest knowledge of history, law, economics, or statesmanship. An INNOCENT is free of guile or malice, and that may not be the best thing for him, if he is walking among foxes and wolves. But Seneca says somewhere that we should regard as holy ground the INNOCENCE of the child. Someone should get word to our singers, actors, librarians, and propagandists in their various modes of employ.
It is disturbing to think that there was a time when the worst human beings in the sorry history of the world were as INNOCENT as puppies. Not that they were free of the propensity to sin. But they had as yet no memory of grave evils committed. Whittier’s Barefoot Boy can whistle where he goes, because he is INNOCENT, and royal in his freedom, which is both moral and practical:
A prince thou art; the grown-up man
Only is republican.
We suppose that such childlike INNOCENCE must be overwhelmed by the storm of adolescence and the sludge it casts up in its wake, but that is not true, no more than it is true that children absolutely must grow up dabbling in lies, treachery, spite, theft, blasphemy, and violence.
INNOCENCE is, moreover, a power. Charles Dickens is our great novelist of the INNOCENT. Mr. Pickwick is a paragon of INNOCENCE, apparently an easy mark for a scheming woman or a confidence man, but he is also wise and profoundly good, and it is his very INNOCENCE that moves Sam Weller to become his manservant; Mr. Pickwick, says Sam, is the best man alive. Cissy Jupe, in Hard Times, can order the scoundrel James Harthouse out of town to save the reputation of Louisa Gradgrind, and he finds himself, to his astonishment, bound to obey. Only her INNOCENCE could have prevailed with him: a matter-of-fact, uncompromising, clear-eyed innocence.
The word comes to us, through French, from the Latin negative, INNOCENS, meaning NOT NOCENS, from NOCERE, to HARM; see also NECARE, to KILL. The bell-like voice of the child proclaims that you must not hurt him, because he cannot hurt you. The murder of children is therefore profoundly wicked. The Indo-European root gives us Greek NEKROS, a CORPSE. In the Celtic languages, the N and the vowel switched places – by a process called “metathesis,” which means, er, “switching places.” So we have Welsh ANGAU, DEATH. I’d like to think that the name of Kipling’s cobra, NAG, is in the corral, but the Sanskrit word really does mean SNAKE.
Word and Song by Anthony Esolen is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.