Words: Expert

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The Independent Online
THERE was a time when people in need of encouragement and advice consulted the local shaman, wizard or witchdoctor, depending on their particular culture. If King Arthur wanted to persuade his knights of something, he had only to cite Merlin's opinion. Today we have shed such superstitions, or think we have. We go to the experts.

There is certainly no shortage of them. An electronic trawl of the newspapers for the first eight days of September comes up with more than 250 stories in which they figure. Often a mere mention of these powerful beings is considered enough to carry conviction. Education experts say many words are commonly misspelt by 11- year-olds, declares the Mail on Sunday. 'Some experts' claim that school inspectors are too lenient, says its daily sister. Experts regard recent safety tests on sportscars as controversial, we learn from Today. None of them is actually named. Nor are the 'independent experts' who, according to the Treasury Chief Secretary, Jonathan Aitken, got the date of the economic recovery wrong. Never mind who they were: their magic has been invoked, and the Government is excused for getting it wrong too.

There was no such thing as 'an expert' till well into the 19th century. Expert was always an adjective, meaning experienced, or tested. Those who were 'expert in love' were not necessarily good in bed; they had merely done a lot of loving. The battle-weary infantryman was expert in war; the general, no matter how well be knew his Clausewitz, was not, unless he had shared its horrors. The educationally expert would have been the teacher, not the psychologist back at the institute. Modern usage has reversed these roles.

Last week Richard Gott in the Guardian hinted that the Booker Prize judges were not proper experts. They were only 'so-called experts'. He meant it as an insult; I am not so sure. Let's give the amateurs a chance for once.

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