Words: Appraisal

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The Independent Online
TEACHERS ARE up in arms because of the Government's proposed appraisal system for determining their salaries, which isn't surprising when one remembers that it was just such an unpopular proposal that led to the founding of the NUT 120 years ago - except that in those days it was called "payment by results", the idea being that you were paid according to how much your pupils knew. Now it's called "performance-related pay", suggesting that the performance measured is the teacher's not the pupils'. This is why both sides in the dispute now talk of appraisal, a vagueish word that also leaves open the question of who is doing the appraising.

I don't know how many other people feel about this word as I do, but I always thought there was something hostile about it, and that being appraised was a humiliating thing, like being looked up and down in a supercilious way by a hostess whose appraising glance made it clear that one's dress was not up to standard.

Perhaps it was a false association of sounds that first gave me this view of it. For me the image that appears unbidden is that of the upraised eyebrow (supercilium is an eyebrow in Latin). Quite stupid I know, but don't we all make such illogical connections? Doesn't trudge, with its laboured dragging of feet, gain something from its rhyme with sludge? For years the word peace made me think of a deckchair, because of an infantile memory of my mother sitting in one and asking to be "left in peace". The adjective stable no longer produces for me a picture of contented nags as it did once, well before I knew that noun and adjective came from the same Latin word; but sometimes these things stick.

Others will associate appraisal with praise. For them, the appraising looks a pretty woman gets when she comes into a room are simply looks of appreciation and homage, rather than, as cynics would maintain, assessments of her availability. And appraise does indeed come from praise.

But the cynics have got it right this time, for that connection dates from the time when praise could mean something quite different from what it means now. At its first appearance in English, to praise also meant to price. Both came from the same Latin word, preciare, as did prize. The ancient Romans seem to have been quite happy to use the one word for all these three things, but we saw that this wouldn't do, and coined variants to avoid misunderstanding, though it took quite a time before this family of words sorted itself out and agreed on a reasonable division of labour. In some parts of the country not much more than 100 years ago people were still talking about praising things when all they were doing was putting a price on them.

The word value retains the ambiguity: a householder values his possessions, as does the auctioneer, though not in the same way. But appraise has never been used otherwise than in the auctioneer's sense. Teachers are sensitive souls, but if I were one I don't think I would take too kindly to being appraised.