If less is more, free is free

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The Independent Online
There are three schools of thought about the restoration of the whip to the rebel Tory MPs. One widespread lobby sees it as a defeat for Mr Major. Hence the headlines "Mr Major caves in to rebels", and so on. Another, equally potent, sees it as a victory for Mr Major. Hence such headlines as "Tory rebels come to heel".

They cannot both be right. But they may both be wrong. I think they are both wrong. There is a third school of thought, at which I appear to be the only paid-up pupil, not to mention the entire teaching staff - a third school of thought that sees it in a different light. We see it as nothing to do with Mr Major at all. We see it as the sad death after a brief life of the word "whipless".

Yes, for the last few weeks we have been treated to the parade of a word we had not seen before in our headlines. "Whipless" has come and gone like a briefly popular fashion model. It isn't often a new word comes along in our lifetime, and equally rarely does it die as soon as it has been born. But the word "whipless" has bloomed and perished like a tender primrose in the hedgerow. For a while there we had a word we'd never seen before. If it had been a migrant bird blown off course, the newspapers would have brought it to our attention. "Rare spotted yellow ousel thought to be nesting in Lincolnshire - whereabouts kept secret." But was there any such fuss over "whipless"? Not a bit. It has been and gone like a man who sat in our railway compartment for a while and then got out at an unfashionable station.

One reason for this, of course, is that the word is so specialised as to be almost useless. Only MPs can be whipless and even when they are we neither know nor care what it means. We have the vague impression that when an MP has the whip withdrawn (or gives it up) it has the same sort of effect as a Catholic being excommunicated or an unruly drinker being barred from a certain pub, but beyond that we have no idea what it involves. The only implication is that being "whipless" is somehow bad, like being chinless or feckless.

Actually, being less something is not always a bad thing. Sometimes it is felt to be good. When people extol the virtues of a "cordless" phone, I think we are meant to be impressed by the absence of a cord. There will come a time when all phones will be without cords, and then they won't be cordless phones any more - they will just be phones. Of course, there may come a time when it is discovered that telephones, like television sets, actually operate better when connected to a cable, then we will see the introduction of "cable telephone", because if cords are bad, then cables are known to be good ...

The first cars, remember, were not greeted as cars, nor automobiles, nor limousines. They were termed "horseless carriages", because 100 years ago they could imagine cars only in terms of the absent horse, just as we now think of phones in terms of the absent cord. When the radio came along, it was conceived of as a telegraph with no wires, and called the wireless telegraph, though the telegraph bit seems to have slipped. Not so in France, where it was called tlgraphie sans fil (or TSF), which has only just been supplanted by the word "radio".

So, it is good to be horseless and wireless, but bad to be jobless and legless. It is bad to be feckless and gutless, and very bad to be thankless if you are a task, and even worse to be headless if you are a chicken; but it is good to be fatless ...

Only we don't say fatless. We say fat-free. We have wandered into advertising talk here. If things are bad for you, the word free comes into play. Fat- free, sugar-free, salt-free, alcohol-free. And if you can't entirely get rid of the offending item, at least it can be low: low-fat, low-alcohol, low-cal ...

You can see the way things work by asking yourself if the rebel Tory MPs could have been described as "whip-free". It makes them sound more like a dessert mix, or at the very least like a jockey who has lost his whip; though a horse without its rider is always called a riderless mount, not a rider-free mount - which is odd because the horse must feel very free of the rider. The camera never zooms in on the unseated jockey to cries from the commentator of "Oh, dear, there's a horseless rider". Once the jockey is horse-free, he looks too insignificant even to worry about ...

Verbal thought for the day: all last week people were telling us to be understanding and politically correct about mental health. Then there was the explosion in Oklahoma. Now, even balanced people such as Nick Ross are talking about the "crazies" of the American right.

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