What is a Peccadillo?

Michael Pollick

The same Latin root, peccare or "to sin", provides two English words with completely opposite meanings, impeccable and peccadillo. A person may be impeccably dressed or have an impeccable record, meaning "without sin or offense," but a peccadillo is a different matter altogether. A peccadillo is literally a little sin, from the Spanish diminutive of the Latin verb peccare.

A spouse's tendency to flirt with members of the opposite sex in public places might be viewed as a peccadillo.
A spouse's tendency to flirt with members of the opposite sex in public places might be viewed as a peccadillo.

The concept of sin presupposes a certain level of offense caused by a specific act or deed. Serious lapses in moral judgment such as adultery, gambling, or theft would be considered major offenses, while lesser offenses such as procrastination, flirtatious behavior or using profane language would be considered peccadilloes. An otherwise honorable person's peccadilloes are often overlooked or forgiven in consideration of his or her overall character.

A peccadilo should never be allowed to escalate into a serious problem, such as a food addiction.
A peccadilo should never be allowed to escalate into a serious problem, such as a food addiction.

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There is often some controversy over what precisely qualifies as a pardonable peccadillo and what should be considered an actionable character flaw. A spouse's tendency to flirt with members of the opposite sex in public places might be viewed as a peccadillo, since the behavior is self-contained and the flirtations are relatively harmless. Habitual flirtation with sexual overtones, however, would not be considered a minor peccadillo, since the behavior is clearly offensive or immoral.

A nervous habit like nail biting is considered a peccadillo.
A nervous habit like nail biting is considered a peccadillo.

Almost everyone has at least one peccadillo, even if one does not choose to recognize it as such. Nervous habits such as nail-biting or hair-pulling would be considered peccadilloes, as would knuckle-cracking or joint popping. Casual use of obscenity would also be considered a peccadillo, since the user is most likely aware of the "sinful" nature of the practice but does nothing to curb it. Many people choose to ignore or downplay the peccadilloes of others, since the mildly offensive behavior does not rise to the level of a public or private correction.

A peccadillo may be considered relatively minor on a social level, but it may still be considered a character flaw which should not be overlooked or written off as simply a bad habit. Heavy social drinking, for instance, may be considered a peccadillo because it is a legal act and the person assumes responsibility for his or her actions. However, a peccadillo should never be allowed to escalate into a much more serious moral or social offense, such as chronic alcoholism or sexual, gambling or food addictions.

A peccadillo like drinking can turn into chronic alcoholism if it gets out of control.
A peccadillo like drinking can turn into chronic alcoholism if it gets out of control.

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