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Violence

While Frances Lawrence, the murdered headmaster's widow, pleads for a national campaign against violence, Nottinghamshire teachers threaten to strike rather than teach a violently disruptive 10 year old, and a Yorkshire school closes when some of the pupils attack staff. True, none of them had knifed the head teacher. But violence is the word that covers it all.

It's certainly a pretty broad term. My mind goes back to an evening in January, 1969, when dissident students at the London School of Economics broke down a pair of security gates, and were accused of having ignored an anti-violence resolution that their union had passed a while before. Not so, said student spokespersons; the erection of the gates was itself an act of violence against individual freedom, and tearing them down was a necessary form of self-defence. was by then a left-wing political term of such general application that it was hard to know what it meant - rather like the all-party word hypocrisy today; anything the speaker disapproved of might be described as violent in one sense or another.

All rather silly. But the word has always veered between the physical and something more abstract. The Latin violentia (from vis, force) seems to have meant no more than vehemence, or impetuosity. Medieval English borrowed it to mean also actual harm, making it a dual-purpose word. A violent action was one thing, a violent gesture was another; after all, there was nothing threatening about the violence of someone's love. It was the Elizabethans, incidentally, who first used violence in the sense of "doing violence to the language".

Today we think first of physical vio-lence, and of the other meanings as metaphorical. One can see how it might have suited violent protesters to violate the language by confusing the concrete with the abstract. There is nothing abstract, meanwhile, about a knife in the stomach.

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