words : Dole

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The Independent Online
FRAUDULENT claims to dole money have been worrying social security chiefs, we read. The said chiefs do not, of course, generally talk about the dole. They prefer to speak of benefits. Dole got a bad name during the inter- war Depression, when the official word was assistance; the responsible body in those days was called the Unemployment Assistance Board. Any word was better than dole, so firmly identified with a tight-fisted bureaucracy which humiliated the poor.

But dole has a long and once quite respectable ancestry, common to many Germanic languages. It is no relation of dole as in doleful which originated from Latin and is brother to that charming word much favoured by the Arthurian chronicler Sir Thomas Malory, dolorous. The Old English dole was not at all a sad word. It began as a variant of deal, meaning a portion or share, and only later came to mean a charitable disbursement. In the Middle Ages it might also be a rightful share of whatever was available, and no questions asked. But as time went by there came to be a general feeling that a dole implied short commons and the niggardly approach. The OED cites an article in the Times of 1894 which refers contemptuously to "doles and driblets."

Its reputation was therefore already low when the hated UAB began its work. I doubt whether the Board would have used dole anyway. It is too short and stark, and would make a poor showing on letter-heads. Not that benefit is much of an improvement on assistance. What is needed is a word that will deter those who think they have an automatic right to raid the national purse. Unemployment pay, though also stark, does at least suggest that the cash has been in some way deserved.

Nicholas Bagnall