Words: your right to an informed choice

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The Independent Online

Between you and I, there is no bore quite like a grammar bore. Droning on about hanging participles, campaigns are mounted against the sourcing of new words, or the prepositions that sentences sometimes end in.

Between you and I, there is no bore quite like a grammar bore. Droning on about hanging participles, campaigns are mounted against the sourcing of new words, or the prepositions that sentences sometimes end in.

A mighty industry, pandering to those traumatised by the sight of a misplaced apostrophe, has developed. Yet the best books in this new genre, from fierce polemics like Don Watson's Gobbledygook to more light-hearted linguistic guides like the recently published Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense, make a point that is more important than mere linguistic etiquette. In Philip Roth's words, "Language is always a lie, above all public language." When meaning is eroded, we had all better beware.

Contributing to the debate with a book called Lost for Words, John Humphrys has pointed up the way words contain unspoken connotations by referring to "boo words" and "hurrah words". But what are the great boo and hurrah words of the age? Why do they appeal to politicians, advertisers and journalists? Above all, how has the invisible freight of hint and subtext that each carries changed over time?

A linguist considering yet another little book for the burgeoning market or word books might consider these candidates for inclusion.

Inclusive. A relatively new term, providing a useful hurrah to any political speech, inclusiveness is an essentially meaningless term which indicates, in a warm woolly way, a politician who cares for ordinary people.

-able. Any word to which the suffix "-able" or "-ible" has recently been added will tend to have an in-built hurrah element. Leaders in this sub-category are "affordable", as in housing, and "sustainable", as in development.

Epidemic. Any practice of which the Government disapproves - smoking, drinking, promiscuity, dropping litter - can be described by this popular boo word. Gambling and lottery addiction, on the other hand, are not epidemics.

Rights. Oddly, this word, once unimpeachably virtuous, has recently taken on negative connotations. In certain contexts - animal rights, human rights legislation from Brussels - it can now be delivered with a sneer.

Lottery. Since the Government seduced most of the population into state-supported gambling, a word that used to associated with unacceptable risk is now a happy, sunny term that cosily embraces both public philanthropy and private greed.

Synergy. Nobody quite knows why, but synergy is a terribly good thing which we should all have in some form or other. When it is also fully integrated and possibly interactive, it is even better.

Middle England. Once a term of mild abuse, this phrase has, thanks to a process of Blairite gentrification, come to represent a gentle, traditional way of life that is an organic, essential part of our national heritage.

Informed choices. A new phrase deployed when the Government wants to bully the population into improving its health or behaviour.

Casino. Once a byword for the sleazy exploitation of the vulnerable from their money, this word now represents freedom, wealth, hope, regeneration and many other types of wonderfulness.

Modernise. A hurrah word of a decade ago that, perhaps thanks to the efforts of Peter Mandelson, has defected to the boos. Once regarded as being on the cutting edge of change and progress, modernisers are seen to be dead-eyed, Machiavellian technocrats.

Public. Until the last few years, this word represented a sense of general social responsibility. Now, like "fraternal" and "solidarity", it is associated with the unacceptable face of socialism. A useful replacement word for politicians is "community".

Intellectual. Retaining its now-traditional position among British boo words, this term is often to be found in the unsavoury company of "élite".

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