‘He is the organiser of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city,’ Sherlock Holmes said of Moriarty. ‘He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson.’ Holmes did not say: ‘He is the Napoleon of criminality.’ Nor did T.S. Eliot of Macavity, who was accorded the same sobriquet as Moriarty. In the past week or so I have been surprised by the widespread strength of feeling against the term criminality.
At first I did not see the objection. As soon as he came back from his holidays to the riots, David Cameron spoke of ‘criminality, pure and simple’. He soon afterwards said he had his eye on telephones used for ‘plotting violence, disorder and criminality’. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, denounced ‘sheer criminality’ and ‘open criminality’. A Manchester police chief spoke of ‘senseless criminality’.
The root of the objection is, I think, the abstractness of the word. A parallel is the widely disliked expression used of terrorists who have ‘claimed responsibility’ for an outrage. Listeners prefer to see it as admitting guilt, not claiming responsibility. The abstract criminality seems similarly unreal. Why not crime?
In these semantic matters, things are seldom simple and never pure. The meaning of crime itself has shifted in its 700-year history. The Latin word crimen, from which it derived, had the sense of ‘charge, accusation, matter for accusation or blame’, and then in late Latin, from the second century, it was applied to the Christian notion of sin.
In English it started with this moral denotation, so that in the late 14th century, a translation of St Paul’s Epistle to Titus had: ‘If ony man is withouten cryme’, where a couple of centuries later the Authorised Version was to have: ‘If any be blameless’. By Shakespeare’s time crime could mean an offence against the law or the state, and more abstractly, such acts collectively.
Criminality, meanwhile, was used, not of acts of crime, but of their quality of being criminal. (In the plural, criminalities was used, as it is not now, to mean crimes in the concrete.) Suddenly, though, Mr Cameron and his fellows have dropped crime. Instead, their motto is ‘Criminality does not pay.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 20, 2011