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Ordinary

It is said that the latest New Year honours list, with its awards for humbler citizens, is a triumph for the Man and Woman - a signal that to be ordinary is an honourable condition. This sounds fine, and accords with current political thinking, but is mere cant, because people with letters after their names are no longer ordinary: picking out ordinary people and making them extraordinary gives no more dignity to the word than it had before.

There is no such easy way of rescuing ordinary from its long decline, which began about four centuries ago. For it was not always as you see it now. It has a respectable ancestry, having descended from the Latin ordo (genitive ordinis), which was a good word for regularity and for having everything as it should be - the Romans, unlike the Greeks, had tidy minds. John Milton (who learnt Latin when still an infant) wrote of the bright-harnessed angels at the manger sitting "in order serviceable", an excellent thing meaning not so much that they observed the precedences as that they were properly kitted out and ready for duty. In Rome an ordinarius was the man in charge, as opposed to a suffectus, or substitute. He was the one with authority, the regular guy. The use has survived in (for instance) ecclesiastical documents, where a diocesan bishop is described as the ordinary, something more than a mere suffragan.

It was inevitable that the idea of "regularity" should dissolve into the idea of "normality", with the further implication that to be normal was to be undistinguished. A sneer had crept into it. After that it was downhill most of the way. Its final indignity came from the United States when it was corrupted into ornery; an ornery person was not just low-class but mean with it. A word once used for those at the top of the heap had become one for those at the bottom. The new-style honours are supposed to give a nice feeling that the heap's being levelled, but it will take more than a few MBEs to convince us.

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