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The Independent Online

A PRIMARY school head has been told that it was 'inappropriate' to sit a pupil on his knee, and that he should not touch one again. Teachers have long been advised not to touch pupils, but it used to be because they might be accused of hitting them, of being too nasty to them. Now it is because they might be too nice. In such circumstances, inappropriate is the right word. What a fudger] We need it at times like these.

The headmaster, who has since left his job, was not accused of having done wrong. Aneurin Bevan used to turn up at functions wearing an informal suit when everyone else was in tails, and it was agreed that this was 'inappropriate to the occasion'. But again, no one could say it was morally wrong. In fact, he himself thought it morally right, as is the unfortunate headmaster, in the view of his supporters.

In Bevan's case, the 'occasion' was a reception or a dinner; in the headmaster's, the existence of a powerful fringe of anti-abusers. If morals had come into it the word would have been improper, which is from the same ancient root; so are propriety and, for that matter, property. All of them descend from proprius, meaning 'belonging' or 'peculiarly one's own' and also, by the time we had taken it over from the French, 'fitting', though it was not until the 18th century, according to the OED, that improper was taken up by the moralists. Before then, propriety had meant only 'accuracy'.

We can see the usual euphemising process here. If people felt that to call an action indecent was a bit too frank, they looked for a milder word, and thus gave a new meaning to improper.

is not quite in this class. It arrived fairly late - in George III's time - and has never pretended to be other than it is - a timid, Casaubonesque word. Its five poor syllables will never come out fighting from whatever corner they happen to be cowering in.