Glossary: Darkness on the edge of town: Here, refuseniks range from those who dabble in fringe religions to travellers

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WATCHING the news the other night, I was struck by a report on the recent murders of prostitutes in the Midlands and North-west. The reporter ended his account with something sonorous about 'dangerous lives on the margins of society', a conventional enough phrase, but one that suddenly chimed rather oddly.

Because if prostitutes really exist on the margins of society, how come they bump into so many men from its notional centre? Are we to assume that all those MPs, captains of industry, lorry drivers and bank managers - those upstanding figures who keep the sex industry going - are simply moral commuters1 ?

Or might it be closer to the truth to acknowledge that prostitutes are actually at the heart of our society, fully implicated2 in a fabric of sale and purchase? They might be under the carpet ('That'll cost you extra, darling'), but they make a fairly conspicuous bump for all those but the wilfully myopic.

Of course, there is a certain deliberate blurring of the vision in 'margins of society'. It is a consoling phrase for those who use it judgementally, suggesting that we all have an agreed mental map of where the centre lies, and that those on the margins could not possibly be conceived of as our neighbours. 'The margins of society' is an undesirable address and it is nowhere near our house, thank God.

Its alternative form, 'the fringes of society', adds something a little more picturesque to the image - the idea that things get a little unravelled and ragged away from the centre. But the essential idea remains the same - the lumpenproletariat are over there somewhere, at a safe distance, and the fabric of our lives remains solid and undistressed.

Much of this has its origins in the 19th-century project of rationalising the social sciences. 'Marginal' is a word that is useful in social anthropology and economics where it is employed to describe transitional areas, between profit and loss, between survival and extinction, between a primitive culture and the one that replaces it. (Its electoral use, incidentally, is relatively recent. Even in 1955, the Times still felt it had to explain exactly what the term meant.)

But in this relatively modern attempt to draw up a usable map of our world, a darker more medieval element survives. Something of the attitude of mind that wrote 'Here be monsters' on the blank edges of maps lives on in contemporary usage, certainly in the way it is used by Conservative ministers. There is an implicit call on the citizenry to make sure all the gates are locked at night and the drawbridge pulled up.

But the phrase can also happily be employed by those with very different political purposes. 'No government,' said a Methodist leader earlier this year, 'can be allowed to hurt people or drive them to the margins of society.' It is still a lousy place to live, then, even if we are more charitable to its inhabitants. Indeed, it is so lousy that we assume no one would choose to go there unless they were compelled to. To 'marginalise' people remains one of the cardinal sins3 in the radical catechism4 .

Naturally, that judgement depends on what you think of society in the first place. To be an 'antisocial element' in Communist Russia was often to guarantee yourself a welcoming committee in the West, should you ever manage to get beyond the well- patrolled margin of the Soviet border.

In this country, the refuseniks range from those who dabble in fringe religions and fringe medicine to travellers, people who live on the 'margins of society' as an intentional rebuke to its values. There may be a medieval model for this, too. The blank surrounds of manuscripts in the Middle Ages were often decorated with spewing zanies, ribald monks and lascivious apes - marginal figures in a quite literal sense, placed there in calculated contrast to the sobriety of the text.

The modern jongleurs, parked in lay-bys in their battered buses, sit next to the official text of modern life, infuriating the pious and occasionally distracting the rest of us. Because, even for the most conventional person, there is a certain allure in dreams of leaving.

Not many people would be happy to describe themselves as living on the 'fringes of society' but still fewer would describe themselves as being 'at the centre of society'; the idiom doesn't exist - not just because it might tempt fate, but also because there is something tame about it, a sense of surrender and claustrophobia. In truth, we don't really know where the centre is; but talking about those on the 'margins' reassures us that we do and that we're better off.

1 From the Latin commutare, to exchange, interchange. American railroads issued commutation tickets, which offered a reduced rate for regular or repeated travel, thus commutation travellers.

2 From the Latin implicare, to entangle. Formed from im and plicare, to fold or twist. Thus 'pliant' and 'ply'.

3 Old English syn. May be related to the Latin sons, sontis, guilty.

4 From the Greek katakhesis, instruction by word of mouth.