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The Independent Online

WHEREVER there are conflicts that need resolving - in Northern Ireland perhaps, in Bosnia, or less lethally in the ranks of the Tory party - there is always a handy spanner for throwing into the works: just accuse someone of "appeasement", a word at onceprecise and vague.

Precise because it recalls the image of Neville Chamberlain at Heston airport waving the famous piece of paper with Hitler's worthless signature on it; vague, because like most slogan-words it is only a matter of opinion, and requires no supporting argument to make its point. When Sir Edward Heath accused John Major last week of "appeasing" his Eurosceptics by thinking of holding a referendum, he didn't need to add that this would be a sign of weakness and betrayal. The word said it for him.

Before 1938 it seldom carried the nuances it does now. "Appease" is our version of the French apaiser (itself derived from the Latin pax) and after we first borrowed it in the 14th century it usually meant to pacify, but not so much in the sense of making concessions, more of restoring calm. ("Appease yourself" meant "keep your hair on".) Shakespeare has Henry VI's wife Margaret say scornfully of Jack Cade's army: "Ah, were the Duke of Suffolk still alive, these Kentish rebels would be soon appeased!", and she didn't mean they would be given what they wanted. It is true that you could also mollify a friend's anger, or a God's, by "appeasing" them, so no doubt the queen was partly being sarcastic, but there wasn't much idea in those days, or indeed later, that appeasement was shameful.

Chamberlain and his supporters used "appeasement" without apology, and in various ways, to describe their own policy: it could be "diplomatic" or "constructive" or "negative", and only the last of the three meant that its sole motive was the avoidance ofwar. It was not until the policy failed to deter Hitler that a perfectly respectable term became a derisive one.

Whatever it meant in its prime, it has never been the same since.