heinous /’heɪnəs/

Like most regular middle-class folks, there are times when I like to watch some terrible sex crimes that end in death and/or dismemberment. And as long as this is taking place in my home, it’s perfectly legal.

NBC’s Emmy-award winning show, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, has been popular with audiences since September 1999, with each season never failing to find new ways of sexually abusing victims in the interest of entertainment.

As the voice over reminds us at the beginning of each, the Special Victims Unit was created to handle such transgressions because “sexually based crimes are the most heinous.”

Defined as hateful, odious, highly criminal or wicked, atrocious, or infamous, heinous comes from the Old French hainos meaning hatred. In Paradise Lost, Milton uses a different spelling in the phrase, “The hainous and despightfull act of Satan done in Paradise,” and uses the superlative form when he writes “These men will suffer the worst and hainousest inconveniences to follow.”

Bill and Ted in danger

Bill and Ted in danger

The word can also be used to mean grave, grievous, or severe, which is slightly tamer than hatred. In the classic movie, Bill &Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), on the eve of an important exam, Bill says, “We are in danger of flunking most heinously tomorrow,” using the word (a) in its milder meaning and (b) as an adverb.

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Filed under Etymology, Morphology

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