Wicked and Evil

So I’ve been trying to figure out the difference between wicked and evil, which I think correspond respectively to Cantonese 曳 and 奸 (incidentally, 奸 sounds the same as 姦, ‘commit adultery’). Since the King James Bible has about 325 occurrences of wicked and 500 of evil, it’s probably too hard to comb through unless I want to be a lexicographer.

Wicked Bible, 1631.

Wicked seems to be something like naughty, which gives rise to the slang meaning of ‘excellent, splendid; remarkable’: the thing’s so good that it is, in some Puritan conception, a ‘sinful’ luxury (you know, like chocolate). Evil seems different to me: whereas the jocular use of wicked to mean ‘mischievous, sly’ evokes the image of a rascal, the jocular use of evil, at least for me, means ‘fascinating and underhandedly clever’. Wicked girls – if you mean sorority girls – do not interest me in the least, but I’m entirely fascinated with ‘evil’ women like Galadriel, who are not actually evil in the proper sense (though Boromir interprets her searching look as a temptation). Examples from The Scarlet Letter may be of use here: Hester Prynne is wicked for committing adultery, and her daughter Pearl, sure enough, is a wilful, impish little child; Roger Chillingworth is evil (奸 and even 陰濕) for his twisted, malicious revenge-lust.

A test case for the difference is wicked child versus evil child. A wicked child is what you imagine The Sound of Music’s Fräulein Maria to have been once:

Perhaps I had a wicked childhood;
Perhaps I had a miserable youth.
But somewhere in my wicked, miserable past
There must have been a moment of truth.

An evil child, on the other hand, is just scary, and not just in the kids-are-unmanageable way.

Now, the word wicked has largely dropped from the American vocabulary in its meaning of ‘offensive to God’: many people could not care less about either the sexual corruption or the greed, the pride, the gluttony, the arrogance, the complacency of Sodom and Gomorrah, so they’ve dropped the term from normal usage. But only the mushiest liberals, those naïve people who think everyone’s good at heart and that bare reason – or niceness? – can save humanity from death, would deny the existence of evil. The rest of us tend rather to recognize that evil exists – that there are rotten apples – but identify it with another group in order to demonize that group, or that group’s representatives, as the scapegoat of society: George W. Bush, Barack Obama, whoever. These people, scapegoated by their enemies, are supposed to have ill intentions, while the bulk of people are presumed to be well-intentioned and harmless. Of course no one likes to think of himself as truly evil, so isolating others as evil isolates the problem of evil residing in everyone’s heart.

This usage is one way that society has inoculated itself against the doctrine of original sin. How queynte.


3 responses to “Wicked and Evil

  1. Tim asked me about that today, and within a minute and a half, we had determined that I agreed with you and not him. =P

    I, too, brought up the example of a “wicked child” and even said the word “naughty.”



  2. This reminds me of the Prayerbook’s use of the word “naughty”; not only in the wonderful Epistle for Easter IV, but also in the Ordination of Priests where the bishop charges the ordinand “to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.”


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