Words: Institutional

Related Topics
THE PHRASE "institutional racism" was not coined by Sir William Macpherson. It had already been used by anti-racist groups and others long before Sir William produced the Lawrence report; and it was supposed be about racist attitudes that were ingrained, an essential part of a culture. Fair enough perhaps. But it's an unlovely phrase, and it was a shame that the report couldn't find a less contentious, and more precise, way of putting it, which wouldn't have had an anxious Metropolitan Police Commissioner asking for a definition that let him off the hook.

It would have been no use his asking help from the linguists (who are presumed to know about meanings) because they have already taken over institutional for one of their own technical terms. An institutional text, we are told by David Crystal in his Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, is anything that is couched in the language of "political speeches, sermons, government/public talks, legal proceedings, council meetings" etc etc, while the Oxford English Dictionary understandably shies off making its own definition of "institutional linguistics" and quotes someone else's: "A branch of systemic linguistics", says this one, of which the aim is "to confront tongues and communities as social institutions." Thank you very much.

The real trouble with the word institutional is that it sends out a number of different signals, some of them quite inappropriate to the doings of the Metropolitan Police. Its commonest association is not with the worthy institutions David Crystal had in mind - Parliament, the Law, the Church - but with others of a humbler kind: the old poorhouses, the mental hospitals, the houses of correction, the kind that is quite clearly understood when it is said of some unfortunate person that they were "living in an institution". And the first thing we think we know about such a place is that all its members are subject to the same regime, which is imposed on them, compassionately or not, by those in authority.

The attitude towards blacks deplored in the Lawrence report seems to have had little or nothing to do with those in authority, some of whom did their best to stop it. But by calling it "institutional" the report inadvertently suggests otherwise.

The word "institutionalised", which has also cropped up (as in "pernicious and institutionalised racism") is nearly as unhelpful. Institutionalise was a Victorian coinage which meant giving formal recognition to something, again not what Sir William Macpherson meant. Later it was applied to people who had been (as the OED puts it) "housed, trained, or brought up" in an institution, and had perhaps been depersonalised by the experience. This gets closer, but it doesn't quite fit the police canteen.

There are plenty of words that have changed so much over the generations that their origins are now irrelevant, but it can't be said that institutional is one of them. The Latin institutum was a purpose or plan, which is just what institute first meant in English, and an institution was the embodiment of such a plan; and there's still no getting away from the idea of an institution as a deliberate formulation - not some grassroots culture that has sprung up without anyone having planted it.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Letters: No vote poses difficult questions – so why rush?

Independent Voices
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside  

Autumn’s subtle charm is greatly enhanced by this Indian summer

Michael McCarthy
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments