Vice (clarification)

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The word vice has several separate meanings. The more current are listed here; OED lists four obsolete nouns and two verbs, which may be of interest to those who read old texts: such students should consult the dictionary. Current uses dealt with here are three nouns and a preposition.

  • The oldest meaning is 'the opposite of virtue', or as OED puts it "Depravity or corruption of morals; evil, immoral, or wicked habits or conduct; indulgence in degrading pleasures or practices." This meaning was the most common in academic writing before the last part of the twentieth century, when there were strongly observed and commonly agreed standards of moral censure in ways that are now (2010) looser. It has had more specific denotations:
    • It has often been specifically restricted to sexual behaviour seen as immoral. The Vice Squad in a police force concentrates on prostitution, pornography etc, as well as offences to do with drug-dealing. This restriction is quite old, as in Shakespeare's reference, in King Lear (1605) (V iii 170) to a bastard that causes his father's death:
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us.
    • In mediaeval Morality Plays, Vice was often personified as a character, usually an attendant of Satn's. In time he was reduced to a figure of fun, or jester.
    • In dealing with horses, vice was any habit that made the animal hard to manage, e.g. "Those defects of stability which in a horse we call vice" (Myers, F.W.H. (1903) Human Personality, I. 200, cited OED.
  • There is a device used to hold hard materials, like wood or metal, steady while they are being worked on. This is mounted on a firm work-bench, or similar surface, and has two jaws, connected by a screw-threaded bar which is turned to bring the jaws closer together and thus hold the work more firmly (or, anti-clockwise, to loosen the grip). This word is commonly spelled vise in American English (details at vice - vise).
  • The third current noun is derived from the preposition (below). Some holders of one or other of the titles starting with Vice- are addressed traditionally as "Mr Vice". This can cause mockery among those who only know the first meaning above. For more, see vice (preposition).
  • The preposition vice is properly written vice (in italic, as it is a Latin word. This may explain its pronunciation, with two syllables: 'VICE-eh' (IPA: /ˈvaɪs ə/); some older speakers may use the church pronunciation 'VEE-tchay' (IPA: /ˈviː tʃe/), or the older tradition in Britain 'VEE-kay' (IPA: /ˈviː ke/). It means 'in the place of', 'instead of' (a form of the Latin noun vicis 'change', 'turn', 'stead' or 'place'). This leads to the third noun above.


Etymological note: Most of the current meanings are derived from the Latin word for a 'grapevine', vītis. Because this plant (and other climbers for which the word was used) grows twisting tendrils, the word was used metaphorically in Middle English as the name of a spiral staircase, and in time to many spirals. It has been used for winches and screws of many kinds - and the French for 'screw' is still vis, as a 'screwdriver' is tournevis ('turn-screw'). The first noun above -'the opposite of virtue' - comes from a different Latin root, vitium, which has broadly the same meaning as its English derivative.

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