SOMETHING nasty has happened to the word welfare. Once it meant simply a state of health and happiness. Now, in the mouths of such as Michael Portillo, it suggests a picture of Nanny rewarding her idle and delinquent charges with spoonfuls of expensive strawberry jam. And it has acquired an ism, often a bad symptom when a word is sickening: welfarism.
All this would have happened anyway, without the help of Tory right-wingers. It was inevitable as soon as people began to see governments as responsible for the well-being of all their citizens. would move gradually from being what it had been since the Middle Ages - an enthusiastic noun, defining a condition - to being a deadpan adjective, describing a function. Even the noun would change: welfare did things ('Has the welfare come?').
Most people would say the process started with Beveridge in the 1940s. But the OED dates the modern use of welfare from as early as 1918, when Arnold Bennett had one of his rich characters complaining about 'canteens, and rest rooms, and libraries, and sanitation, and all this damned welfare'. Dr Rodney Lowe says the term ' State' (Wohlfahrstaat) came from Germany in the 1930s, where it was actually a term of abuse, and that it was taken up here 'as an antonym for warfare state'. Professor Peter Hennessy, who says it was first used in English in 1934 by Sir Alfred Zimmern, prefers the 'uncontaminated' word philanthropy for what the state does, which is much more accurate, but it's too late now.
Meanwhile, those who want to use welfare in the original sense can happily still do so. In the week that Mr Portillo was giving the Spaniards his views on the State, Prince Charles was musing thus: 'It is very important, I think, this question of understanding people, man management, human relationships, being responsible for other people's welfare and so on.' There is a nannyish tone here too but this kind of welfare is an old friend.