Words; Modernise

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Gordon Brown has announced that the war against poverty can only be won by the modernisers, while Tony Blair intends to modernise not only the welfare state but also the House of Lords, the monarchy and the entire Labour Party. David Blunkett, though clearly unhappy about the way Mr Brown proposes to go about it, has hastened to declare that he is committed to modernising the welfare state.

At this point one begins to smell a rat, or rather a weasel. Maybe the war against poverty is going badly, but we've got an answer to that.

Can't you see we're modernising it? New Labour Good, Old Labour Bad, and what I say three times is true.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with modernise. Since mode is a Latinate word meaning a way of doing things, modern means merely that it's done according to the current way of thinking - a harmless word. Modernise seems to have been first used by 18th-century philologists and orthographers who altered the spelling and language of archaic texts to make them easier for modern readers; then by architects who made old buildings nicer, to live in.

Labour's use of it today appeals to this latter sense, encouraging visions of the ramshackle old welfare state giving way to a gleaming new edifice.

But isn't there something suspect about words ending in -ise? One can't help thinking of traumatise, trivialise, brutalise, tyrannise, bastardise, monopolise, sovietise, bowdlerise - all words with an unpleasant smell about them, words that suggest something has been made worse, by distortion or corruption or plain meddling.

I'm sure that if they were counted up, they would easily outnumber the benign ones like customise and humanise or the neutral ones like memorise, signalise, realise and so on. Modernise can as easily go into the first category as into the second or third.

Nicholas Bagnall

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