The venial nature of venal sins

A politician is accused of lying about whether he had sex with a woman not his wife. Another is accused of accepting lavish vacations from an industrialist in return for supporting legislation that favors that industry.

Which scenario is “venal” and which is “venial”?

Language people love it when two words are close in spelling, but their meanings, while not close, can be easily conflated. So it is with “venal” and “venial.”

Neither “venal” nor “venial” are good characteristics, to be sure. Depending on context, one might be more forgivable than the other. They can even overlap.

“Venal” has been in the news more lately. When the Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would lift its ban on the importation of elephant parts if the animals had been legally hunted in Zimbabwe, the head of the Humane Society condemned the move because “It’s a venal and nefarious pay-to-slay arrangement that Zimbabwe has set up with the trophy hunting industry.” (President Trump later tweeted that he would keep the ban in place while he looked further into the matter.)

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In an article discussing new tax proposals, a Forbes writer said a top tax rate was necessary “to make the occupants of Congress relevant, and in a necessarily venal and anti-egalitarian fashion.” In writing about investigations into Russian influence on the 2016 election, Michael Gerson said: “Robert S. Mueller III and his A-team of investigators have plenty of stupidity and venality to work with.” 

If you haven’t figured it out, “venal” means “corrupt.” It’s from a Latin word meaning “for sale.” When it first entered English, in the mid-17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant simply for sale, but it also meant something that could be bought rather than earned, such as a place of honor, or something “ready to be given in return for some reward without regard for higher principles,” or a person of “an unprincipled and hireling character” who could be bought or bribed.

“Venal” has another meaning as well: relating to a vein. And while that comes from a different Latin word, sometimes “venal” people have a way of getting right at the heart of things.

“Venial” is also relating to a vein, but that usage arose hundreds of years after the original “venial,” which means “worthy of forgiveness.” The earliest appearances of “venial,” around 1300, the OED says, relate to theology, the “venial sins” that can be cleansed from the soul as opposed to the “mortal” ones that condemn the soul.

But both “venal” and “venial” are open to interpretation. A politician lying about being an adulterer could be both “venal” and “venial, “lying being usually a “venal” sin, but adultery is considered “venial.” The politician who has accepted gifts/bribes is certainly corrupt, and thus “venal,” but if the legislation the politician supports in return has few negative results, that could be a “venial” sin. In this case, separation of church and state could be more difficult.

In the 1977 book Dos, Don’ts & Maybes of English Usage, Theodore M. Bernstein had a great mnemonic to help writers decide which word to use. “Venial,” he writes, rhymes with “genial,” while “venal” rhymes with “penal.” While “venial” sins aren’t nice or “genial,” at least they’re nicer than something that could send you to prison.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.