An early sixteenth century Dutch depiction of the seven deadly sins, by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch.
Back in the day, everyone in Western Europe was Catholic. It should thus be no surprise that Catholic theology has left a profound impact on the English language, and has granted us many excellent, Latin-based GRE vocab words. In this GRE Vocab series, we will discuss words that describe the seven deadly sins and the seven heavenly virtues. Some of these words are easy, but others are more unusual, and all of them have synonyms and related words that are frequently tested on the GRE.
In Catholicism, the seven deadly sins are considered to be the root causes or motivations for all sinful actions, and include lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. Each sin has a corresponding heavenly virtue that was meant to strengthen the good catholic against the temptations of sin and the consequent risk of eternal damnation. The seven heavenly virtues are humility, charity, kindness, patience, chastity, temperance, and diligence.
The sin of Luxuria was often personified as a beautiful woman, much like the Roman goddess Venus.
You are probably familiar with the meaning of the word lust, which refers to excessive sexual desire. In Latin, the traditional language of the Roman Catholic Church, the word for lust is luxuria, from which our modern word, “luxury,” is derived. The English word “lust” is derived from the German word Lust, which simply means joy, pleasure, delight, or desire, and does not have the same sinful overtones as the English word. A word often used as a synonym of lust was the word lechery. A lecherous person was a lustful person – a person given over to unrestrained sexual desires. If someone is lustful, you might also describe his or her behavior as wanton, licentious, libertine, promiscuous, libidinous, prurient, salacious, concupiscent, lewd, or lascivious.
The word wanton means overindulgent, especially concerning sexual desires or material luxuries. It can also mean heedless or refer to an action done without regard for morality, justice, and all that’s right and good, as in “wanton destruction.” Licentious means sexually unrestrained as well. You might recognize the word “licence” hiding in “licentious.” We all know that a driver’s licence is something that gives you freedom to drive legally, but the word licence can also refer to freedom generally, like “poetic licence,” when poets or writers bend the truth in order to make their stories more compelling. Licence especially refers to an excess of freedom or abuse of freedom. So a licentious person is someone who allows him or herself excessive sexual licence.
The word “libertine” has a meaning derived from similar logic: you probably recognize the word “liberty” in “libertine.” This word has a particular association with the eighteenth century (the 1700s) and the age of the Enlightenment, a time when new ideas about democracy and freedom were circulating throughout Europe even as absolutist monarchies and privileged aristocracies maintained their hold on power. As new ideas about political freedom became more common, there was fear among some that these liberties would lead to an erosion of morality, especially sexual morality (even though aristocrats were the ones who were infamous for their sexual misbehavior).
A portrait of the notorious Casanova.
Eighteenth century figures like the famous seducer Casanova and the twisted Marquis de Sade (we get the words sadism and sadistic from his last name, de Sade – he was turned on by causing women physical pain, and he wrote about it extensively. Masochism is the enjoyment of physical pain itself, hence the modern abbreviation “S&M”), stoked fears that too much political liberty would make everyone turn lustful and lecherous and would be the end of civilization as we know it. A libertine was thus a man who lived a life of unrestrained sexual indulgence, and perhaps also made a practice of seducing otherwise “virtuous” women (back then, a woman’s “virtue” consisted of only one thing: waiting until marriage to have sex and then only having sex with her husband and no one else). Another word for this kind of seducer is rake (the adjective form of the word rake, rakish, actually means debonair, fashionable, jaunty, and charming – just the qualities a successful rake might need).
The word libertine could also be used as an adjective to describe people who behaved like libertines or deeds that a libertine might commit. Perhaps the best example of the eighteenth century libertine is the legendary, fictional character of Don Juan, a Spanish nobleman who uses his aristocratic privileges and good looks to seduce thousands of women, until he is dragged to hell by the ghost of the father of a woman he attempted to rape. The Don Juan legend is famously portrayed in Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni (Giovanni is the Italian version of the Spanish name Juan, both of which are equivalents of the English name John).
The word promiscuous is an adjective that refers to casual and often indiscriminate sexual behavior with a number of partners. The noun form is promiscuity. It derives from the Latin word promiscuus, which literally meant “mixed-up” – you might notice the root misc in promiscuous is shared with the word “miscellaneous,” which means mixed and often uncategorized. Libidinous is derived from word libido, a Latin based word for one’s sex drive. Libidinous is thus a synonym for lustful.
I can post Titian’s famous painting of Diana and Actaeon on this website because it’s great art!
The word prurient is derived from the Latin word prurire, which means “to itch.” Over time it came to mean lustful as well. Prurient is a word that is often used in legal contexts; for instance, legally speaking, what is the difference between a picture of a naked woman in a pornographic magazine and a painting of a naked woman in an art museum? One explanation (which you may or may not agree with) is that the magazine appeals to “the prurient interest” whereas the painting apparently appeals to a more innocent appreciation of beauty. The phrase “prurient interest” is often used when there is suspicion that someone may be getting some kind of perverted pleasure out of something when they’re not supposed to. For example, some people might argue that the tortures beautiful women often go through in gory modern horror films might appeal to the sadistic prurient interest of some viewers.
A scarlet woman corrupts passers-by with her tentacles of sin in this Victorian public service announcement.
Salacious is another synonym for lustful that derives from the Latin word salax, which in turn derives from the Latin verb salire, which, according to dictionary.com, can mean “to jump, move spasmodically, spurt.” No explanation needed there, methinks. The word concupiscent also means lustful; it derives from the Latin con- (with) cupere (desire). Lewd also means lustful or obscene, and it does not derive from a Latin word. It is a very old English word that originally meant common, uneducated, peasant-like. I suppose over time the assumption was that the lower classes had crude tastes, although as we have seen the aristocrats were just as guilty (if not more so). Lascivious is yet another synonym derived from the Latin lascivia, or playfulness.
The virtue meant to combat all this lust was, of course, chastity, or the quality of being chaste, pure, sexually restrained (from the Latin castus). Immaculate, intemerate, inviolate, celibate, and continent are all words related to the virtue of chastity. Immaculate comes from the latin word immaculatus, which breaks down into the prefix im- (meaning not) and the root macula (meaning blemish). The word immaculate thus means spotless, unblemished, perfect, and pure. In Catholicism, the Blessed Virgin Mary is often called the Immaculata, or “the immaculate one,” because she is believed to have been free of original sin from the moment she was concieved in her mother’s womb (this is known as the doctrine of the immaculate conception – as to what all that means, that’s another article). Because of the word’s association with Mary, it also has a strong connotation of sexual purity as well, although you can also use it to describe anything that is pure, spotless, clean, or perfect – like a neat freak’s living room.
Intemerate and inviolate have similar derivations and meanings. Intemerate derives from the latin in- (not) and temerare (to darken, violate), and inviolate derives from the latin in- (not) and violatus (hurt). Both mean not violated or not hurt, but more specifically they mean not raped or not defiled – pure, especially sexually. Celibacy is the quality of completely abstaining from all sexual activity. A person who practices celibacy is celibate or is a celibate (celibate can be either a noun or an adjective). It comes from the latin word caelebs, meaning “unmarried.” In the Catholic church, all priests, monks, and nuns take vows of celibacy, renouncing all sexual acts and relationships. Continent comes from the latin verb continere, meaning “to contain.” It refers to sexual restraint or self-control: the ability to “contain” one’s desires. In modern medical terminology, however, continence is the ability to control when one urinates or defecates – if a patient is incontinent, he or she may need an adult diaper.
Those are all the GRE words having to do with lust and chastity that I can think of for now. If you want extra help with GRE vocab from me or another GRE expert, remember that you can always contact Test Masters and get the best prep available. Next time, we discuss another deadly sin: avarice. Until then, avoid temptation, and keep studying!
By Calvin Dotsey