In this past weekend's NYTimes "Book Review," as I read a review of a book on the history of American political corruption, I suddenly became aware of something I hadn't realized all these long years dealing with language. I suppose one might call it a declension experience, but I think it has more to do with the way we bastardize language as we stumble through disconcerting and disastrous times. We want a word to fit our subjective purpose, and, even though it doesn't actually fit, we mangle and maul it so that it might fit, we hope, that is, depending on the reader, we hope.
So there I was, reading along in the 19th century syntax and semantics of a Supreme Court justice's 1854 opinion on lobbyists, their contracts and how they defile and debase democracy. He wrote about lobbyists, "Speculators in legislation, public and private, a compact corps of venal solicitors, vending their secret influences will infest the capital of the Union and of every state, till corruption shall become the normal condition of the body politic." (emphasis added, and he goes on to associate this corruption with the fall of Rome by using a Latin phrase.)
What shocked me was that I had never made the obvious bond between venal/venality and vending/vendor. This led me to my handy Online Etymology Dictionary, where I discovered how the closeness in meaning had come to be a bit distanced. Indeed, "venal" and "venality" in 1650 had all the salacious associations that we think of today, and its association with "vending" or "vendor" had a secondary usage.
The point made in the article and in the Justice's statement was that political corruption is motivated by venality, and is executed by vending. The venality is about power and money, and the vending is about the sale of integrity. We assume that vending and the vendor have the consumer's interests and welfare at heart, and the only time we even consider accusing them of venality is if it is exposed.
The sad part of my personal enlightenment and its connection to the uncanniness of language is that I immediately became aware of how much we take corruption for granted in our political culture. How much politicians expect us to wink and nod at the pay-offs and pay-backs that are the key strokes of governance. I suppose we accept that as the cost of being Americans.