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The Independent Online

WHEN John Major humiliated right-wing backbenchers last week, most papers agreed that he was exercising his authority. Or he was stamping it (Times), or reasserting it (Daily Telegraph) or restoring some of it (Financial Times) or killing off a challenge to it (Daily Mail). These interesting variants raise doubts about the sort of authority being talked about. The word implies power of some sort, but whence derived? It could be ex officio, like that conferred on traffic wardens by wearing yellow. Or it could be a personal quality, a natural power of command.

The Times's use of 'stamp' makes it clear that its reporter was thinking of the traffic warden's kind. Official seals are stamped on documents to give them authenticity. The Mail, with its talk of a challenge, seems to have taken the same view. This was Mr Major saying: 'I'm the premier, not you, so stop it]' The Independent called his show of authority 'unexpectedly brutal', like that of a prefect abusing his right to cane. The Telegraph and the FT, however, were concerned with the man rather than the office. Mr Major's authority was not clear-cut; in the FT's version he aimed to restore only some of it.

Both meanings are venerable; the context should tell us which is intended. St Matthew makes the distinction neatly when he says Christ 'taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes' - it was the charisma that grabbed them rather than any expertise in ecclesiastical law.

Today's proliferation of statutory authorities, busybodying themselves over the conduct of our lives, has diminished the word. Michael Portillo chose a dubious text when, in his recent sermon imploring people to show more respect for our institutions, he quoted Ulysses's speech from Troilus and Cressida about the virtues of 'degree, priority and place'. He could equally have quoted from King Lear: 'A dog's obeyed in office . . . Robes and furred gowns hide all.'