ALASTAIR Campbell, Tony Blair's press secretary, has been accused of being a control freak, which is a rude way of saying he gets over-excited by power over others. It's the word freak that carries the sting. It's hard to get away from the idea that freaks are disadvantaged people, such as the circus dwarfs, say, who featured in Tod Browning's Freaks made in 1932 - a film thought so shocking it wasn't shown in Britain till the 1960s.

Mr Campbell is perfectly formed, but then the malfunction implied by freak can be mental; train freaks and health freaks are generally thought to be unbalanced, and to need help, or we surely wouldn't call them freaks, we'd say they were "train buffs", or "health fanatics"; and people who are freaked out are by definition out of their minds, which for them is presumably the whole point of freaking.

This was not what the word meant when it somewhat mysteriously came into the language in the 16th century. A freak in those days was what the Oxford English Dictionary calls "a capricious humour, notion, whim or vagary". Nothing much wrong with that. Elizabethan poets might write of "the freaks of fortune", or as we would say nowadays, more prosaically, a run of bad luck. By the 18th century a freak was hardly more than a prank or caper, or perhaps a flight of fancy, an imaginative quirk. It wasn't till the 19th that the word went morbid, when a genetic mutation, or a deformed creature, was called a "freak of nature", or freak for short. It never really recovered.

Not that Mr Campbell will mind. He himself has a broad command of language, much of it rather abusive, which some say is what principally qualified him for the job. Sometimes any old word will do for a weapon, as when he complained of "congenital briefing" by ministers, or when he told journalists: "There are certain subjects you are all neuralgic about". (Mrs Malaprop would have been proud of him.)