words: SECURITY

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The Independent Online
"YOU all know," says the goddess Hecate to her attendant witches, "security is mortals' chiefest enemy", the plan being to lure Macbeth into thinking that nothing can harm him. This shows how much security has changed between Shakespeare's day and the reign of President Chirac. France's notion of security is to let off an atom bomb. Security is what you tighten up, as Chirac did last week, when you're being infiltrated by terrorists. It is all to do with fear.

For Macbeth it was the opposite: the absence of fear. The Latin prefix se meant "without": and cura meant "care", so securitas was freedom from care, thence unconcern, thence carelessness, or misplaced confidence. An Elizabethan talking about "a false sense of security" would have been committing a tautology. It's true that even in those days the word might mean not only safety, but also protective measures for ensuring it. But the first meaning was the predominant one. It wasn't until modern times that security began to evoke images of secrecy and oppression, familiar to anyone who has been frisked at an airport by unsympathetic armed soldiers.

In short, a once-comfortable word has evolved into a distinctly uncomfortable one, readily used as a justification for brutality, humiliation or the insolence of petty officials. In its most obscene form it becomes the instrument used by dictators to keep them safe from the wrath of the people. A high-security prison confines its inmates much as the wrapping secures a parcel, and it's as though we have turned the word inside out: it is we, not the prisoners, who have the security. Elsewhere it's merely a fancy word for red tape. All this is unfair on the security men who protect my office building - perhaps we should find another word for them.

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