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The Independent Online

TONY BLAIR has called the idea of hereditary peers "absurd". It was "in principle wrong and absurd", he said last week, that people should wield power on the basis of birth rather than election or merit. Conservative intellectuals like Brian Mawhinney have reacted sharply, but there's no doubt that Mr Blair made a nice hit with his use of absurd. The very sound of it buzzes with dismissive contempt, particularly when it is pronounced, as I have heard it done, with the voiced 's' - abzurd - the 'b' lending some of its sound to the consonant that follows it. Modern dictionaries neglect this variant, but I'm pretty sure it was the way Lady Bracknell, as played by Edith Evans, said it. I still seem to hear Dame Edith's drawn- out emphasis on that long second syllable.

Its origins, generally forgotten, are as it happens concerned with sound. The Latin surdus meant "deaf", and to be absurdus was to be inharmonious or out of tune - a ready-made metaphor for irrationality and discordant logic. There is sometimes a pause in Euclid's geometrical theorems at which, having purposely laid a false trail in the argument, he would say "which is absurd". At school this made us laugh because we thought absurd meant "comical", which indeed it also did, but not for Euclid.

The "ridiculous" meaning was already detectable in the 16th century when the word was young in English, but only, I think, when it was used of people, rather than ideas. Tony Blair's use of it last week took us back to the Euclidean meaning, at least I imagine it did. He was saying that it was illogical to allow hereditary peers, with no popular mandate, to impede the business of the legislature. He did not, of course, mean that the peers themselves were in any way absurd. I'm sure Mr Blair is too polite for that.

Nicholas Bagnall