Sunday 04 January 1998
Its inventor was probably Michael Young (since himself ennobled as Lord Young of Dartington), already then a bright star of the intellectual Left and a convinced egalitarian, whose book The Rise of the Meritocracy came out in 1958. This was a satirical history of British society from 1870 to 2033, and it did a lot to persuade educationists that the 11-plus exam ought to be abolished, because the grammar school system established a pecking order as divisive in its way as the property-based class system had been. Young meant meritocracy to be understood as a nasty, slightly ridiculous word, no better than aristocracy, and without aristocracy's etymological credentials, being a bastard mixture of Latin and Greek - meritum is the Latin for something deserved, kratos the Greek for power - and thus putting itself in the same category as made-up words like laundromat and washeteria.
But then Conservatives, who believed in promotion by merit, made it their own. Even some Socialists, having seen the cover of the much-talked- of-book but not had a chance to open it, failed to realise that it was a satire, but for most of them meritocracy was always a rebarbative word, suggesting an undesirable elitism. Now we have a distinguished contributor to the Left-wing Guardian telling us with every sign of approval that our society aspires to be meritocratic. Michael Young must have wished he'd never coined the wretched word.
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