On 20 November, most newspapers carried on the front page a report on Sonia Gandhi’s caution on the menace of greed and graft in public life. The word graft was well chosen, as it conveys the seriousness of theissue better than facetious coinages such as kickback and payola.

In horticulture, grafting is the process of transplanting a piece of one plant into a cut made in another plant, so that it can grow there. The word goes back to Greek grapheion, to write. It then came to mean a pencil or stylus. The grafted shoot or scion of the plant resembles a pencil, and so the word got its horticultural meaning.

How it came to mean illegal gain is not clear. One explanation is that it refers to illegitimate profit seen as a sickly outgrowth grafted on a legitimate undertaking, and not part of its genuine natural development.

Enraged by the corruption that poisoned American society, Mark Twain once remarked: “The new political gospel: Public office is private graft."

Secrecy is of the essence of graft, and this is seen in some of the words in use. Money under the table, in both literal and figurative senses, can influence decision makers. Merriam Webster’s dictionary traces this phrase to 1948. If a particular shady transaction is likely to be exposed by someone, then hush money is paid to ensure that the secret is kept. A backhander is defined as money secretly paid to someone in a position of power to win favours from him.

Another secret source of illicit money is the slush fund. It is secret money stashed away, unrecorded and never accounted for. Richard Nixon had to face charges of maintaining a slush fund out of campaign contributions. The specific charge was that there was evidence of a quid pro quo: a telephone company which made a donation to his campaign funds was rewarded with favourable terms in the settlement of an anti-trust suit it was facing. Time magazine (12 November 1973) quoted a report saying that President Nixon “himself had personally and bluntly intervened in the case".

The word envelope is listed in dictionaries as a synonym of bribe. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda is said to have dished out envelopes amply stuffed with currency to the members of parliament who amended the constitution to give him a third term as president.

Graft in business is a matter of grave concern to governments. According to a 2004 estimate by World Bank Institute (WBI), bribes paid worldwide each year by both rich and developing countries amount to $1 trillion.

There was a time when German multinationals liberally greased the palms of officials in other countries and could even treat those payments as tax-deductible. That is not so easy any more. A report in The Independent (Ireland) tells us that Siemens paid $1.6 billion in the US as penalty for bribing officials in other countries; Shell likewise is facing a penalty of $30 million. Legislation in the UK in the form of a Bribery Act is likely to come into force in April 2011.

The Act seems to have sufficient teeth to keep influence pedlars on their toes. The law will apply to UK citizens as well as foreign entrepreneurs doing business in the UK. It makes “failing to prevent bribery" an offence; the company will be held responsible for acts of “associated persons".

This can include partners, subsidiaries and agents. Even minor bribes like customs facilitation and hospitalityallowance will be under scrutiny.

So we can end, as we began, on a note of caution. The headline reporting the UK’s anti-corruption measures read: “Beware the brown envelope as UK Bribery Act looms."

VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.

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