JEFFERSON said that the three inalienable rights, endowed by the Creator, were life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which are not the same sort of rights as those lately acquired by a couple of newspapers in the stories of the two nurses reprieved by King Fahd. And neither of them is quite the same as Frank Gilford's right, which he waived, to insist on the death penalty for the said nurses - or, for that matter, the right of schoolgirl Beth Tandy, who suffers from ME, to have five hours' home tuition paid for by East Sussex County Council, as confirmed by the Law Lords last week.

Shouldn't there be different words for all these different rights? For a start, we could do with a separate word for what Jefferson was talking about, which are moral rights, as opposed to the legal rights granted to Mr Gilford and Miss Tandy - particularly when you consider that there is much less chance of Jefferson's sort being honoured, since they have the sanction only of the Almighty, while the others are supported by the majesty of the law.

However, right has been doing double duty for about a thousand years now, so it may be too late. Many Germanic languages have variants of it (in Old English it was sometimes spelt reht), all of which must once have come from Latin, because the adjective rectus meant "straight", whether in the sense of "direct" or in both senses of "upright" (hence rectitude). The Middle Ages seem to have made little distinction between God's laws and man's, the theory being that the latter were based on the former, or if they weren't they ought to be; so right covered a multitude of virtues.

Since then, we have taken a more sophisticated line; Alexander Pope was already regarded as a bit of a silly in 1733 when he wrote, "One truth is clear, whatever is, is right." But still we go on using the single, question-begging word both about the priceless aspirations of Thomas Jefferson and about a newspaper story bought for cash.

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