WORDS: CRAFTED

TONY Blair's French seems to have gone down well with the natives last week. Le Figaro said it was "impeccable" and noted the speaker's charisme. On our side, the Independent's John Lichfield thought it "convincing", though Boris Johnson in the Daily Telegraph knew better, writing of Mr Blair's "prep school French". But what was one to make of the Times's comment? His speech to the Assembly, said its leader-writer, was "cleverly crafted".

You can never be sure with the Times, but crafted is not the sort of word one expects to see in a serious newspaper. It's more likely to be found in advertisements for limited-edition commemorative porcelain, which is always lovingly crafted by dedicated artists to capture its beauty, as the jargon has it. I first came across the word in the 1970s, when it was fashionable for reviewers to say that such-and-such a novel was "well crafted". One sympathised with their difficulties - novel-reviewing can be a thankless trade - but the word made one squirm. It was so desperately twee.

And now here it was again in the leader-columns of the Times. To be fair, you can guess what the paper was after. No doubt it was trying to hint that there was something calculated, if not ever so slightly devious, about Mr Blair's speech - something crafty, in short.

That could have been the only excuse for using crafted. For craft has been an ambiguous word since the end of the Middle Ages (its etymological origins are lost in a Teutonic mist). At first it meant power, but its English version meant specifically brainpower, an admirable thing, except for our national tendency to distrust intellectuals, to say it's all right to be clever so long as you're not too clever by half. So it was fine if you applied your cleverness to a particular trade or calling, as honest craftsmen do, but not if you misused it, hence witchcraft and priestcraft, a dirty word. Cunning has a similar history; its opposite, naturally is artless.

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