Three Appeal Court judges declared last week that the Home Secretary had been unfair in extending the sentences on James Bulger's murderers. A gentle legal mist surrounds their judgment, but on the whole we know what they were talking about. If they had been delivering it in the Middle Ages, though, or even as late as the 18th century, they could have been taken to mean something quite different. Up to then unfair had been a word for "ugly". For a time it also meant "wicked". Whatever we may think of Mr Howard I doubt if he is a wicked man, and his personal appearance is hardly a matter for the courts.
began by meaning "beautiful", but it was one of those versatile words like nice. Its application to light-haired people came fairly late - not till the Renaissance in fact, when gentlemen, taking their cue from the ancients, began fooling themselves into believing that they preferred blondes. Anyway, since beauty was popularly supposed to live with kindness, one can just about see how it could come to mean not only beautiful but also gentle, or handsome in both senses of that word. Or, for that matter, benign. And benign people are reasonable, just and even-handed.
had already got this far by the time English had begun to be recognisably modern. enough; but it reminds me of my old physician who, asked what he thought of some health food cure-all or other, replied "What's good for everything is good for nothing." began, inevitably, to decline. Now it's no longer a current word for the beautiful and the good. It still means even-handed, but it also means mediocre. It has fallen to the semantic equivalent of Gresham's Law. This is fairly sad. The real wonder is that it did so well for so long.
Nicholas BagnallReuse content