The New Year's Honours List, despite some moves towards modernising it, has come under renewed fire from the Left. As Jonathan Freedland put it in a Guardian piece, titles like "Sir" have no place in a modern society, "at least one which aspires to be a meritocracy", his point being that there are still those who have titles they didn't earn themselves. Fair enough, but it was an interesting way of putting it, because meritocracy seems to have changed sides since it became current 40 years ago.

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.

Nicholas Bagnall