×

We've got news for you.

Register on Sunday Times at no cost to receive newsletters, read exclusive articles & more.
Register now

We’re a bit rusty, but that doesn’t mean we’re all dead (or ...

Ideas

A WORD IN THE HAND: CORROSION

We’re a bit rusty, but that doesn’t mean we’re all dead (or rotten)

A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd

Deputy features editor: Sunday Times
As World Corrosion Day passed by on April 25 almost unnoticed, it is important to note the difference between corrosion and corruption. Unlike corruption, rust which occurs as a result of corrosion does not stink.
UNTAPPED As World Corrosion Day passed by on April 25 almost unnoticed, it is important to note the difference between corrosion and corruption. Unlike corruption, rust which occurs as a result of corrosion does not stink.
Image: 123RF/WEERAPAT KIATDUMRONG

The Book of Words dictates that the more frequently any word is used, the faster it will lose its power to shock, to melt, to move or to horrify.

In the beginning was the word, and it was a marvellous, or at least an important word. But then the word spread and became common. It began to bounce off deafened ears and trip off insensate tongues until ... well, you get the idea.

One such word is “corruption”. We hear it every day, from every quarter. “Oh, there’s so much corruption.” “Oh, it’s just corruption again.”

Corruption did not start out as a word to be so blatantly accepted and even dismissed in this fashion. It used to be a vile, rotten, stinking word that would stop you in your tracks and make you pull the collar of your shirt up over your nose.

Take this definition from the Online Etymology Dictionary, which dates the first English use of “corruption” to the 1300s. Originally spelt corrupcioun, it referred particularly to dead bodies and meant the “act of becoming putrid, dissolution, decay”.

This evolved, as words do, to the figurative spoiling of the soul and the seductive depravity of morals.

One of the best lines involving corruption comes from The Big Sleep, a classic film noir made in 1946, directed by Howard Hawkes and starring Humphrey Bogart as private detective Philip Marlowe. 

In one scene, the fearsome General Sternwood, played by Charles Waldron, asks: “Do you like orchids?”

Marlowe replies: “Not particularly,” to which the general shoots back: “Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. Their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption.”

Corruption, undoubtedly, has lost its sickening flavour by too much familiarity.

In SA, corruption has become inextricably linked to people in government or aligned positions who line their own garages with luxury cars rather than spend the money entrusted to them, mostly earmarked for the mitigation of poverty and suffering.

I put it to you, however, that corruption itself has been corrupted. We use it so often that it has lost its impact and has become merely another word, like marmalade, or wheelbarrow.

Why do I think corrosion is a better word for what has happened to SA than corruption? Because no government institution, no matter how bereft and fallen it might be, can be called a dead body. 

As an alternative, I would like to offer “corrosion”. This occurred to me after reading an article in a community newspaper by journalist Sphiwe Masilela, who was reporting on an event that might have escaped the notice of many South Africans. I’m ashamed to say I did not know that April 25 was World Corrosion Day. If I’d known this was an international day to combat rust and celebrate good plumbing, I’d have hired a pipe band and a troop of tap dancers.

Anyway, on this day, a number of school pupils were addressed by experts on the matter of corrosion.

Masilela’s article was titled: “Together, we can avoid corrosion.” Just to be clear, corrosion differs from corruption in that rust does not stink. Corruption involves the putrefaction of dead bodies; corrosion involves the rusting of unmaintained, poorly fitted or inappropriate pipes and other plumbing mechanisms.

According to the OED, corrosion, which became an English word at around the same time as corruption, means: “to gnaw to bits” or to “wear away”.

In his article, Masilela quoted Steve van Zyl from SA’s Institute of Plumbing, who told aspirant artisans in the audience: “Plumbing is not a one-size-fits-all. And just because it fits, it doesn’t mean it’s the right one to use.” 

Van Zyl’s advice to the pupils was to “always use approved fittings and pipes”.

Why do I think corrosion is a better word for what has happened to SA than corruption? Because no government institution, no matter how bereft and fallen it might be, can be called a dead body. 

Even at Eskom, the live and the quick fight daily against the lack of maintenance and unfitting systems that leave us all in the dark, all too often.

Corrosion — the decay of fittings that have not been maintained, the failure of irregular fittings, the rusting of fittings worn down due to exposure to the elements — seems to me a more appropriate word for our malaise.

We may have been worn down, corroded and gnawed at. But not all of us are dead and rotting.

I leave you with one last line from Van Zyl, which, if you like, can be freely translated as a metaphor: “It is always critical that people use qualified plumbers to do their plumbing needs and ensure routine maintenance.”

subscribe

Next Article