WORDS: Principles

prin si-pls

Neil Kinnock's acceptance of a peerage last week showed "a sad lack of principle" in the old left-wing warrior, a Guardian reader complained. I wouldn't have thought so myself, now that the Lords aren't the privileged bunch they used to be. The only sort of decline I could see here was a sad decline in the power and influence of the word principle.

This was once a noble word, descended directly from the same word in Latin - princeps, meaning the Big Cheese; prince is from the same source. Principalis, the Latin for principal, was merely an attendant adjective, sowing confusion in the minds of generations of schoolchildren and seemingly unnecessary in any case since princeps had served the ancient Romans as both adjective and noun.

Meanwhile principles are not what they used to be, since we live in a pluralist society now and yours may be quite different from mine. I could, if I wanted, have six different principles before breakfast, each of them equally valid at the time. This is all a long way from the original idea of a principle as the one inviolable thing that mattered above all others, or else one of the natural laws, like the laws of physics, that determine the nature of the universe. The missing principle in Lord Kinnock's case, according to the Guardian reader, would presumably have been that kind hearts always matter more than any number of coronets, never mind the circumstances, anything less being inexcusably pragmatical.

However, principle has long been a lost cause. It had already started going downhill in Victoria's day, when people had begun using the expression in principle, by which they generally meant that they intended to break one of their own, or else turn a blind eye to other people's breaking theirs.