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The Independent Online

JOURNALISTS struggling to describe the unspeakable tragedy unfolding on the borders of Rwanda and Zaire have been finding, understandably enough, that words fail them. 'A humanitarian catastrophe' is how one ITN reporter more than once described it. President Clinton called it 'a human catastrophe', but the ITN's man didn't mean quite that; he meant that the situation was disastrously beyond the scope of the aid agencies. Even so, the phrase sounds like a contradiction in terms.

Actually, it was quite late in its short life - it has hardly been going 200 years - that humanitarian came to mean 'humane', or even 'to do with humane action', which was how that ITN reporter was trying to use it. Its origins are entirely different. A humanitarian (often spelt with a capital) was someone who denied the divinity of Christ: then someone who thought we owed our duty to each rather than to God, and could manage without Him.

Such notions were shocking: only pagans put their faith in the perfectibility of the race. But even after it had begun to acquire its compassionate overtones, which seems to have been about the middle of the last century, humanitarian long remained a bit of a boo- word. Its suffix reflects this. People or movements given the ending

arian or -arianism have generally been those thought of at the time as cranky, as were the Unitarians, whose views were close to the original s, and the millenarians, who looked forward to Christ's long-stay return to earth. Consider also utilitarianism, vegetarianism (once much mocked) and our fad friend disestablishmentarianism - all of them causes which in one way or another were calculated to give rise to comment among right-minded people. (Riparian, a classy adjective for 'riverside', is an interesting exception, so is agrarian.) In Victoria's time humanitarians were tiresome do- gooders, poking their noses into places where they had no business. Today we see the things differently: and so we should.