WORDS: ABUSE

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YOU might think the English were short of words. Take abuse, a perfectly sound word in itself, and so is misuse, which often means the same thing. Yet abuse is constantly kept busy while misuse hardly gets a look in these days.

When Michael Howard was accused by the Law Lords last week of flouting the wishes of Parliament, he was told that this was an "abuse of power". So it was, but what he was doing was not what alcoholics do to their drinks or what some adults do to children, which are also abuses, though 10 years ago if someone was said to be abusing a child it would probably have been thought that they were shouting at him. We have four different meanings already. Shakespeare brings us a fifth. "He hath been notoriously abused," says Olivia of Malvolio in Twelfth Night, but his tormentors weren't just reviling him, they were humiliating him. A word which does equally well for druggies, child molesters, Michael Howard and Sir Toby Belch is too big for its boots.

Why not distinguish? Abuse has a touch of corruption or perversion about it lacking in misuse. It might be better to say that the parents are corrupting their children, that Mr Howard was misusing his power, or perverting the law, and that the addicts are misusing their drugs. Then abuse could share some of the work and would be all the better for it. It's a misuse of semantic resources to bring on the same word for Mr Howard's contempt towards Parliament on the one hand, and on the other for an exchange of compliments among drunks on a Friday night (to say nothing of drug abuse, a curious inversion which suggests that it's the drug, not the addict, that is harmed). But the language bloweth where it listeth, and it's no good complaining.

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