Words: Person

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THE GOVERNMENT has just launched a campaign to make everyone feel more kindly towards the disabled. "See the person, not the disability" is its message, and quite right too. But there really ought to be a better word than person for what the campaign is saying here. For the funny thing about person is how impersonal it is.

A persona in Latin was a mask, as worn by actors (hence dramatis personae), which meant that a person was not a real person at all, and was only impersonating someone else; Shakespeare, for example, uses it in this sense. Meanwhile other people talked about "a person" simply to mean someone who wasn't an animal. There wasn't much individuality about it. By the end of the 18th century it had become almost a term of contempt. Coleridge's best pipe dream was interrupted by a wretched "person from Porlock" whose appearance at the Somerset cottage put a premature stop to "Kubla Khan"; this wasn't even just a man, it was a hopelessly anonymous "person," who has had a bad name ever since, except that he hasn't got one, or Coleridge chose not to remember it. "Who is this person?" a question sometimes heard at the stuffier sort of cocktail party today, actually means "Who is this interloper, can't he see we're talking?".

But long before Coleridge, before Shakespeare even, person often meant something quite different. It meant the physical body. "His person," it might be said, "was tall and thin," or "His person was far from clean," or "He carried nothing about his person". Police witnesses are among those who still use "person" in this way, and of course it conveys the exact opposite of what David Blunkett, who is fronting the Government's campaign for the disabled, has in mind when he asks us to "see the person".

Conversely, and to confuse matters further, the word body can mean "person" just as person can mean "body", and not only in Scotland ("Gin a body meet a body, Coming through the rye ... Need a body cry?"). This is of no use to Mr Blunkett.

So what should he have said? Not easy. The campaign is really talking about "personality", meaning personal character; but the word has become degraded. A personality is now someone who has made a name, but for nothing in particular, like a television personality.

"See the individual, not the disability" might have served. But a slogan is never much helped by having a five-syllable word substituted for a two-syllable one, and again, individual has been spoilt by the pompous or the facetious, who use it when all they mean is "person". So we end up going round in circles.

Of course everyone wants to be thought of "as a person", as someone in his or her own right. Unfortunately, political correctness has helped to depersonalise the word. What's a salesperson? We don't even know whether it's a man or a woman. That's the trouble with the PC movement. It rightly insists that everyone, regardless of categories, is a unique being, and different from every other being, then asks people to use language in a way that makes everyone sound the same.