Wednesday, December 2, 2009


I first learned about the right of U.S. Customs to ban people from entering the country based on their moral turpitude awhile ago, after the strange case of Sebastian Horsley, who was detained and then sent home on these grounds, partly perhaps based on his tell-all memoir Dandy in the Underworld.

This seemed extreme, but the doings of a Horsley seem a bit remote from my daily life, and so I put this in the 'noted with interest' mental file. However, last night at a dinner party, I learned that a friend of a friend has also just been banned from the U.S.--for life--for being a bit too candid on the custom forms about some past indiscretions. As I happen to know a little about the nature of these 'crimes' and also know from personal experience what a kind and decent human being he actually is, I find this all more than a tad beyond the pale.

Be that as it may, the real question that came up for us was, what is moral turpitude. And for me, more specifically, where does the word 'turpitude' come from?

One of my friends was not even sure if moral turpitude was a good thing or a bad thing. He's well-read, it's just that it doesn't come up all that much in daily life. While not knowing its roots, I do know that turpitude is bad, and I'd sort of roughly take it as the opposite of moral rectitude. I don't know if the word is related to words like disturb, or turbulent, because I also have this idea that it relates to darkness.

Okay, enough guessing.

Right idea, wrong root. Turpitude comes through Middle English from French and further back from Latin. Turpitudo means 'ugliness', and its root is turpis, or base. So it would seem that this word, despite geographic migrations hasn't strayed far from its, ahem, base, at least in terms of meaning.

The alphadictionary folks make a good point though in saying that the term 'moral turpitude' is a bit redundant, as there really aren't any other forms of turpitude that aren't related to morality. They have, for instance, ruled out the possibility that the word is related to 'turpentine'. No, it's just general baseness all the way around.

As for what moral turpitude meant in the Horsley case, Slate Magazine dissects it for you here.

Meanwhile, my friend is inclined to take his 'banned for life' status here with a "que sera, sera" attitude. Luckily, the sponsors for his American trip were able to find a substitute destination for him.

He was sent to Rome, where the question of moral turpitude apparently bothers no one at all.


  1. He was sent to Rome, where the question of moral turpitude apparently bothers no one at all.


    They have, for instance, ruled out the possibility that the word is related to 'turpentine'

    Does the US also ban entry on the grounds of moral turpentine?

    v-word: reati (misdemeanours)

  2. Nice. And a little Italian vocabulary thrown in for free.

    "thinking of the best interests of his family"--isn't it always the way?

    Thanks, Marco--my mood is a little dark tonight and there is nothing like a little sexual scandal in high places to lighten the mood a bit.

  3. Hope there wasn't any serious reason behind your bad mood.
    Think about bright yellow slugs and smile!

    v-word, quist, which means twig in Danish and Swedish.

  4. I'm afraid it may turn out to be more than a mood, but at least the catalyst is over and it just plays out however it does. Thanks for the banana slug suggestion though. You'll be pleased to know that this year someone has come out with a whole calendar devoted to them. It's a bit monotonous if you aren't really into yellow-colored slugs, but still, one appreciates the effort.

    I am puzzled about that quist, as it seems to be the ending of many Scandinavian surnames. Like Lindquist, for instance. Does it by extension mean son or daughter of, or is it just that the Swedes and Danes have strong affinities with trees?

  5. I, too, thought of turpentine and torpor. But then your as-ususal-lucid-and-anecdotal post enlightened me.

  6. Sucharita, isn't it both fun and funny that we create these false etymologies?

    Turpentine really should be related, I think. Unfortunately, it isn't.