Words: Mission

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The team from Amnesty International that is to investigate paramilitary violence and human rights in Northern Ireland is naturally being described as a "mission". If one looks at the etymology of the word, this makes fair sense so far as it goes, since it comes from the Latin for "to send", and the emissaries of Amnesty are plainly being sent there. But clear your mind of etymology, and give the word a blind tasting, as it were, and you may come up with something rather different, and probably far more complicated.

The first thing to notice might be a fairly robust evangelical flavour, for a common understanding of a mission, surely, is that its purpose is to alter other people's opinions about something - and most likely their religious opinions. This is what it has meant almost from the beginning of its history in English. Among the very first to use it were the English Jesuits. Christian theologians of all colours were accustomed to speak of Christ's mission on earth.

Of course, the religious and secular meanings have always co-existed. But what do we conclude if it is said of someone that they have a mission? That they have a bee in their bonnet, with which they hope to set the rest of us buzzing. The corresponding adjective - I can certainly think of no other - is "missionary"; and the noun most often associated with "missionary" is "zeal", or else "flavour", implying a strong desire to convert others. Here the idea of sending has almost disappeared; you may convert someone in your own sitting room. My own mind goes back to my days reporting for a church newspaper, when I often had to follow banner- toting parish processions put on for the benefit of the strictly local heathen. Those were called missions too.

Amnesty International certainly has a general mission, and a noble one, but it has nothing to do with religious conversion, least of all in Northern Ireland. I take it that "mission" is used here in a Latinate sense: a more or less neutral word, with nothing too emotive about it, more like a diplomatic mission, which is not supposed to have a missionary function. So why should we have to use the same word for these two very different things?

It's generally fruitless to worry about such ambiguities, if only because our language has so many of them. (What do you mean by "a pretty old woman"? If I hear talk of "a funny experience", will I be expected to laugh? And so on.) But the connotations of mission have become too ambiguous for comfort.

Things really began to go wrong when American generals and politicians, to be followed in due course by their opposite numbers in Britain, decided to use the word "missions" to describe acts of war. Where earlier missions had carried bibles, these carried bombs. Etymologically this usage is beyond criticism, but the word has travelled too far from its original home. Just as, by progressive euphemisms, killing becomes "liquidation", then "elimination", then perhaps "configuration", so here, by an obscene perversion, hostility is renamed by being given a word better suited to friendship. Pity.