Glossary: The pack has been shuffled: spot the jokers

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'THE CABINET reshuffle has begun,' intoned a grave voice on the radio yesterday. You almost expected martial music to follow, as if the nation were huddled next to their sets, waiting with bated breath1 . I fantasised briefly about what might follow. 'The life of the Government is drawing peacefully to its close' perhaps, or 'At first light this morning, elements of the First Armoured Fleet Street Division secured strategic positions on the pavements overlooking No 10. The evasion has commenced.'

No such luck. It was just another shuffle, part of the endless soft-shoe choreography of politics.

'Shuffle' is an oddly candid word to choose, really. The OED describes it as meaning 'to manipulate the cards in a pack so as to change their relative position, with the object of preventing the players from knowing the order in which the cards lie', which is actually not a bad description of a political shuffle. 'Manipulate' is certainly pertinent, as is the general sense of obfuscation (not to speak of that 'lie'). We're the players, I guess.

But it hardly redounds to the credit of politicians or prime ministers. If the shuffler is honest, he should also be absolutely clueless about what ends up where; if he's dishonest, then he's nothing more than a card-sharp engaged in a grand game of Find the Lady. Besides, a decent shuffler can't decide to chuck out some jokers in favour of a few more aces2 , which is precisely what a politician sets out to achieve.

If they are truly wedded to the idea of ministers as two-dimensional pieces of cardboard, then 'discard' might be more brutally accurate, closer to the sense of trying to assemble a winning hand from a pack stuffed with dud cards. 'The Prime Minister,' you could say, 'has decided to discard John Patten and draw Gillian Shephard.' It would be a very foolhardy politician, however, who tried to sell the hacks, or the country, a 'new deal' every time he played musical chairs.

The OED only arrives at the card-playing sense after spending some time on other meanings, which further compound the mystery3 . The word originally derives from the Low German schuffeln, to walk clumsily (words like shove and scuffle are related), and its first English sense is exactly that - of going through your paces in a peculiarly lacklustre way, dragging your feet wearily through the dust.

The Prime Minister, and his predecessors in the shuffling game, hope to persuade us that they are putting their best foot forward, striding boldly into the future, but they use a word which suggests they barely have the strength to put one foot in front of the other.

And even speaking figuratively, the idea doesn't have a particularly respectable history. To shuffle and cut, a popular English phrase for some time, always carried a faint whiff of disreputable practice, as if sleight of hand was involved. A shuffle can also be a prevarication, a way of not showing what you have in your hand, or even an unseemly scuffle. To shuffle something off is to shrug off a burden or get rid of a liability (not desperately inappropriate in the case of many reshuffles, I suppose).

The earliest citation for a political sense in the OED is from 1897 ('Queensland has been content with only 17 shuffles or re- shuffles', which may be ponderously ironic or indicative of political upheaval at the time), and it has been in fairly steady use since then. Under 'reshuffle' there is even an instance of a football writer borrowing the political term, an unusual example of a journalist swimming against the metaphorical current.

There will be plenty of references in the next few days to the Prime Minister's 'new team' or 'new line-up', both metaphors that might be thought more congenial to a sports fan and which are obviously suitable for extension: after all, politicians already sometimes 'kick-off' a new session of Parliament or 'kick legislation into touch'.

Perhaps Mr Major could have seized the opportunity to refresh our political vocabulary at the same time as he endeavours to splash water in the face of his flagging political reputation. 'Cabinet selection' is a bit dull, it's true, but at least it suggests that the changes have been arrived at rationally, rather than by random chance. And, if the sinister wartime echo, of concentration-camp decisions between those who lived and died, is thought unfortunate, it does at least reflect something of the abject dread with which ministers wait to hear about their fate.

1 Form of abated, from the French abattre, to beat down. Thus anything diminished in force or strength.

2 From the Latin as, a unity or unit. Originally the side of the dice with only one spot, then extended to cards, tennis etc.

3 From the Greek musterion, a secret thing. The Greek root connects it to the word for close (as in to close your eyes or lips).