Words: Ideological

In one of its leaders on the Clinton affair, the Independent was pointing out that the President's future was bound to be a gloomy one: it depended more on politics than on the law, and "many of the most ideological of the New Right sit on the House Judiciary Committee". I'm not sure how the committee men involved would have taken that word ideological; it has uncomfortable echoes. It was ideology that sent the Jews to the gas chambers, ideology that motivated Stalin's years of terror, and mowed down the Chinese students in Tiananmen Square.

But a few days earlier the Guardian had carried a piece by Roy Hattersley defending Tony Blair. It wasn't true, said Mr Hattersley, that Mr Blair lacked ideological vision. On the contrary, he had plenty of it.

Perhaps it's not so bad to be ideological after all. It rather depends on what particular brand of ideology those being talked about happen to favour. However, a word that can evoke praise one minute and distaste the next looks as though it may have gone wrong somewhere along the line.

Certainly there are many other words - morality is one, temper another - that can also change colour, according to what adjective is attached to them: temper can be good or bad, morals high or low. But the Independent provided no qualifier here: the Republicans it spoke of were described as ideological, tout court.

To be fair to the Independent, it presumably wasn't saying that to be ideological was always wrong: only that ideology ought to have no place in a judiciary committee. In its early days, it would have had no place in politics either. It was a philosophical term.

The 18th-century psychologist Condillac devised a system based on the notion that all human ideas come from one or other of our senses. In his day, it was either this system that people meant when they talked about ideology, or else the general science of ideas. An ideological person would have been someone who studied ideology. Then Condillac and his friends were forgotten, and ideology became little more than a frame of mind, roughly the same as idealism, with a touch of quixotry about it.

Ideological is thus one of those words that began by defining a subject or an academic discipline, and went on to mean a quality. The same thing happened to ethical, which at first simply meant "to do with ethics"; similarly, philosophical has ended up meaning "redesigned", which is what people suppose philosophers must be.

A more recent example is geriatric. There are still those who object to its popular use, insisting that it should be applied only to the services offered to old people, not to the old themselves. But theirs is a hopeless case; it will soon be impossible to talk about a "geriatric nurse" without misunderstanding.

Anyway, if I were Mr Blair I wouldn't want to be called ideological. I'd rather be praised for my down-to-earth policies, if I had any.