CRITICS CHOICE: JUDGEMENT

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The Independent Culture
When Ron Davies admitted to a "serious lapse of judgement" on Clapham Common last week he may have meant just that he'd been a silly boy. But this would not have been the right language for a secretary of state, or even an ex-secretary of state, so he had to talk about a lapse of judgement.

If so, he was using the word in its most general sense, as Mark Antony did when orating over the corpse of Julius Caesar: "Oh judgement, thou art fled to brutish beasts, and men have lost their reason". In other words, Mr Davies had done something foolish, whatever it was; however, his attempt to find a more dignified way of putting it didn't do it much good, because we weren't sure what he'd misjudged.

A judex in Latin was specifically a person pronouncing sentence in a court of law, and in Christian England he might even be God, "maker of all things, judge of all men", dividing sheep from goats. The point was that judgement implied - and indeed still implies - the making of decisions, or being discerning, which comes from the Latin for to separate or distinguish. Perhaps all Mr Davies really meant was that he couldn't judge the difference between a friendly stranger and a common thief.

Or perhaps he was unwittingly following Christ's injunction, "Judge not that ye be not judged". In this tolerant age, we're not expected to do much judging of one another. This is clearly reflected in judgement's adjective. It's no longer nice to be judgemental, a once-neutral word with, now, some pretty pejorative overtones, particularly in matters of morals and sex.

Thus Ros Coward, writing in the Guardian last week about the social services, remarked that "the public fear their own values aren't understood or respected. They suspect that those motivated by theory and politics will be judgemental." Say no more. Guardian readers will have taken the point.

They will also have had no difficulty, incidentally, in decoding Ms Coward's previous sentence, which ran: "What's broken down in the past, especially around child protection, is any shared understanding of the criteria social services use to assess families." That was Guardian-speak at its best.

For those who don't read the paper, I should explain that Guardian-speak is a mixture of informality ("What's broken down") and a lot of abstract nouns ("understanding of the criteria" etc), combined with a great deal of inelegant syntax, which I think must be deliberate. Ms Coward could easily have written: "The trouble has been that the social services are out of touch with the families they're called on to assess" or something like it. But it would have lacked the authentic Guardian sound, the idea being that the syntax should show the common touch while the abstractions convey the necessary expertise.

But I wouldn't dream of mocking it, any more than I would mock Mr Davies for saying "I had a lapse of judgement" rather than "I made a right fool of myself".

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