words : Process

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THE Anglo-Irish framework document uses the word "process" in two consecutive sentences but in quite different contexts. The first speaks of ``the healing process", and we get an image of Dame Nature doing her gentle work, without surgical intervention, of knitting up deep wounds. But the next speaks of "the talks process", a strictly human activity, subject to human error. The second sentence has people trying to make something happen, while the first is about observed phenomena, over which the observer exercises no control. Philosophers, anthropologists and social scientists tend to use "process" in this first sense. Commerce uses it in the second. It has the Bessemer process to make steel, it processes photographic plates and it does surprising things to processed cheese.

The word (it comes from the past participle of procedere, to go forward, a hopeful verb) has had both meanings for about 600 years, which could be why "the peace process" has a touch of ambivalence about it. It is not a matter of throwing people together and seeing what happens; but nor is it a procedure with a known outcome, like a reprographic plate. It does give a vague impression, though, that the peace process is more scientific than it really is.

Some have credited Henry Kissinger with having coined the phrase "peace process' in the 1970s, though the earliest actual reference so far discovered by OED editors, whether from Britain or America, dates only from 1983, when the Times reported a hitch in Acas's attempts to help settle a strike of water workers ("a lull in the peace process"). Their next reference after that is from the New York Times in 1989, about the Arab-Israeli peace process. I don't think last week's document actually uses the phrase. Were its authors, noting the failure of some other peace processes, reluctant thus to label so delicate an operation?

Nicholas Bagnall