Pass the bottle, feel the benefit: Glossary

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What's in a name? Everything, if you look closely enough. Take the Jobseekers' Allowance, which, it was announced on Monday, is to replace unemployment benefit. 1 I expect the long-term jobseekers feel better already; years of hanging round listlessly, spirits sapped by being little more than an adjective, and at a stroke Peter Lilley restores their dignity as honest, decent nouns.

Why, it's practically a job in itself, jobseeker, a vocation for which there will be training, including advice on how people should 'present themselves acceptably' to an employer (presumably shorthand for 'have a bath, you scruffy2 git, and get rid of those dreadlocks sharpish').

Not jobhunters, you note, though that verb is just as common when it comes to looking for work: jobhunting might imply that jobs were rare and fugitive, that there was an element of desperation in the quest - and that wouldn't do. Besides, seek has something visionary and reassuring about it, a biblical guarantee of delivery. Seek and ye shall find.

Allowance is telling, too. No doubt it has already been pointed out to Mr Lilley that the English for allowance is 'pocket- money', but even without that unfortunate transatlantic colouring, it is a word heavy with paternal admonition. An allowance implies a concession on the part of the giver and includes the idea that it might, at any time, be disallowed. Be on your best behaviour, is what allowance says to its recipients.

Sir William Beveridge would have disapproved, though oddly enough for the very reason that a Conservative government has introduced the change: that of promoting personal responsibility. 'Benefits in return for contributions,' wrote Beveridge in his report, 'rather than free allowances from the State, is what the people of Britain desire.' The word benefit, which has been in official use since the National Insurance Act of 1911, had a much longer history before that, in association with friendly societies, which paid out sickness and old age payments to their members.

So 'benefit' for Beveridge implied that people were getting something for which they had paid, a proper return on all those premiums. When Donald Dewar describes the 'contract3 between national insurance payers and the state' this is the tradition he draws on. The problem for Conservative reformers is not just that the insurance analogy won't, in practice, operate in a society of high unemployment (the premiums don't cover the payouts), but that benefit itself can sound paradoxically alluring.

It isn't such a problem with child benefit, where the words don't struggle against each other (we know already that children are a blessing). In any case child benefit is universal and, for the moment, not means tested - just think of all those prosperous first-time parents, discovering that the loss of sleep is at least marginally offset by the excellent bottle of Penfold's shiraz they can afford to buy with last month's Social Security payment. Of course it's a benefit.

But when it comes to disability and unemployment the phrases are odder, as if there might actually be an advantage in being sick or out of work. That stirs up Conservative prejudices too briskly for them to be able to leave the name alone.

In 1986 Supplementary Benefit was changed to Income Support, another linguistic adjustment which moved us away from the idea of a purchased protection towards the implied benevolence of government, putting a hand to the elbow of those still unsteady on their own two feet. Assistance, which predates Support by many years, has the same notion of abetting the efforts of an individual rather than replacing them.

'Welfare'4 is subject to some of the same anxieties, though in less explicit ways. Beveridge apparently disliked it, thinking it confirmed the idea of a 'Santa Claus state', but it had been popularised in a book by William Temple, then Archbishop of York, and it stuck. Nicholas Timmins also points out, in his history of the welfare state, The Five Giants, that 'from the cradle to the grave', that vaguely sinister formulation of unwavering guardianship, was actually Churchill's phrase, not Beveridge's.

It is interesting now to see that 'welfare' doesn't seem to be perceived as an electoral liability by Labour, though Tony Blair has largely avoided talking about the 'welfare state' - for some time part of Tory demonology.

By using welfare alone, Blair might be able to hold on to the good connotations while dumping the bad. Nothing wrong with nannies in their place.

But it seems likely that the search for effective euphemisms will continue, even if there is a change of government. The only guarantee you might offer is that one word will never be back in fashion. Though both 'welfare' and 'benefit' could reasonably be paraphrased as 'doing good' - that is, they are perfectly good euphemisms for charity - that is the one word which nobody would dream of using. Nobody, whatever their politics, wants to be a do-gooder.

1 From the Latin benefactum, a good deed or kind action.

2 Metathetic version of scurf, in turn probably from the Old English sceorfan, to gnaw, scearfian, to cut to shreds.

3 From the Latin contrahere, to draw together.

4 From the verbal phrase wel fare, go well. Thus doing or being well.