Words: focus

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What was head prefect Tony Blair doing while the rest of them were throwing ink-pellets at each other? He was stepping up his efforts, said the Daily Telegraph, to "refocus the debate on policy issues such as health and education". The Telegraph was taking up a word that, until recently was almost the exclusive property of committed libertarians, professional care workers, academics interested in the social sciences, and such forward-thinking people.

The word focus has long been indispensable for anyone who decides to write, shall we say, "a pathbreaking study" of "the history and contemporary significance of our cultural assumptions", as the publishers' catalogues like to put it. The author does not write about these matters any more. He or she focuses on them. The worthy publishing house Black Dog, for example, is producing a new series of "interdisciplinary publications set up to address a variety of contemporary issues relating to art ...", of which the first volume "focuses on modernism". Another collection "focuses on the relationship between architecture, literature, building, psychoanalytic theory, film and art". And so on.

The obvious image evoked is of the racegoer adjusting the field glasses, or a photographer seeking the sharpest outline. It's only natural that such a word should appeal to Mr Blair, who has so often been accused of offering the grand concept without defining too clearly what it's actually made of. Hence his party's recourse to the "focus group", with its suggestion of let's-get-down-to-business, no-mucking-about precision; hence, as always, the Orwellian need to correct perceived deficiencies with labels that mean the opposite, where the Department of Propaganda becomes the Ministry for Truth.

When the Telegraph's political correspondent used the word he was not quoting Mr Blair directly, but no one should blame him for falling into that way of talking. Refocus, though, is an interesting variant, because it shows how the word is beginning to break loose from its moorings.

Refocusing always used to mean adjusting the focal length so as to make the subject clearer. Here it means diverting the attention to a different lot of subjects altogether. It's just the fashionable way of saying "concentrating on", or "switching one's attention to".

Not that we should worry too much about that. After all, the original focus had nothing to do with lenses. It was the Latin for a hearth, the central point in a house. You could say that the Telegraph's talk of refocusing was actually nearer the Latin. One can reasonably move the hearth to another part of the house. Seventeenth-century scientists confused the issue slightly by giving the word to that exact point where rays meet, as in a "burning glass", like the magnifying glass with which on sunny days children try to set light to paper. (The verb, to focus, didn't come in until Victorian times.)

I don't know whether the scientists had any thought of blazing hearths when they used the word. But we still use the Latin sense, unconsciously, when we say the fireplace is the focal point of a room.