Words: Backlash

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The Independent Online
'TORIES fear backlash against privatisation', said a Daily Telegraph headline about plans to sell off the Post Office. The Mail took the same line, writing of 'the threat of a political backlash'. This was not the only backlash last week. 'Blair faces union backlash' said another Telegraph heading, while The Times, in a cryptic sentence, told us that at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party 'there was a backlash against the positioning by 'friends' of some candidates in recent days'.

Since the future of the Post Office and that of Tony Blair are such different cases, I began to wonder what, if anything, the word might mean. Of the nine reputable dictionaries I looked at, only three gave a satisfactory definition. Backlash is an engineering term, coined early last century to describe what happens when there is a change of speed or direction in a train of gear-wheels, so that the cogs engage on their other sides; there might, particularly in those early days, be some juddering, or chattering. But nowadays most engineers use it simply to mean 'slack' or 'play', which in their view can be a good thing, because without a bit of play a gear-train could grind to a disastrous halt.

Laymen often grab technical terms which sound smart but annoy the experts. Backlash looks like an extreme instance. Its applications have diverged so far that its value as a metaphor has almost disappeared. But it has gone further down the road than that. The layman's understanding of it - 'a sudden or violent recoil' - has itself become hazy. The backlash against Mr Blair happened because even those who liked him thought his supporters were overdoing things: a faint chattering of cogwheels here. But none of those Tories, so far as one could gather, was backlashing in any clear sense of the word. All they were saying, if indeed they were saying it, was that they were damned if they were going to see the Post Office privatised. Another word might have done better. Revolting, perhaps?

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