words; Crucial

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The Independent Online
In a final appeal to the electorate on Wednesday evening, John Major told them they were about to make "a crucial decision". Well, of course they were, for crucial, properly speaking, means just that: it defines the point at which a decision has to be made, so all he seemed to be saying was that there was going to be a decisive decision, which is about as tautological as you can get. The Latin crux (genitive crucis) meant a cross - not the sort with which voters recorded their choices on Thursday, but a pole with a crossbar such as that on which wrongdoers used to be crucified. Also a fingerpost, which is where the English meaning comes in - do we go left or right?

However, Mr Major's use of it last week shows how far the word has wandered, as words will. Having at first been used for a decisive point - in a scientific experiment, perhaps, or in a story: would the hero drown, or would one bound set him free? - it then came to mean "difficult" or simply "important" (which I suspect is all Mr Major meant), so you'd have theatre critics saying that "the crucial point about this play is that it's not to be taken seriously", or company directors attending "crucial" meetings of the board at which, after all, nothing much was decided. In a thoughtful election-day leader the Daily Telegraph declared that there were "crucial differences between the parties", but again I doubt if it meant much more than "important", the word having lost its metaphorical force.

For really dead metaphors, though, one goes not to the broadsheets but to the tabloids. The Sun was telling us on Thursday that "health is a close second on Mr Blair's hit-list", as though he were about to have it bumped off, and the Mirror wrote of "a massive chasm" between the parties, causing a word once eloquent of weight and solidity to vanish, as it were, into thin air.

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