Thursday, 19 December 2019

It depends what you mean by "bee" and "bonnet"

The latest issue of Third Age Matters has the usual contribution by professional stick-in-the-mud Eric Midwinter, to which a sub-editor has contributed the ridiculous idea of theft (as if a meaning, whatever that may be, could be "stolen"):

For many years...
(I was about to write "sixty-odd", but that would imply that when the word was coined in 1958, I [extraordinarily gifted child that I was] immediately adopted it into my seven-year-old's working vocabulary; improbable, I think)
...I have used the word (ABused it, from the point of view of Mr Midwinter) in the way suggested by the New York Times interview quoted by Etymonline

It's a quite simple bit of word formation. As aristocracy is rule by the best (aristoi) and theocracy is rule by God (theos), meritocracy is rule by people judged on merit. But nous avons changé tout cela as le bourgeois gentilhomme was told, and as Mr Midwinter would have it; strictly, though, the Midwinter version would be "almost everyone has changed it, but they're wrong".

Michael Young, writing in an introduction to the 1994 edition of his work, wrote:

The case against meritocracy (the one and only true meaning of meritocracy, in the view of Midwinter and his ilk) is that people who get into a position of power on the basis of merit then protect their progeny regardless of merit. In other words, meritocracy works once, and thereafter arrogates power and influence to the privileged, regardless of merit. To insist that this flawed sort of one-time meritocracy-followed-necessarily-by-mediocracy-in-perpetuity is the only sort – the TRUE meaning of "meritocracy" – deprives the word of any useful meaning.

Over time, meanings change. Here I give lots of instances of  change, sometimes complete reversals, finally getting round to this explanation  of "backlog":
The words back and log were first fused together (to use an appropriately fiery metaphor) in the late seventeenth century. They referred to a log placed at the back of a fire. Such a log was desirable; it was a Good Thing. It protected the fire from going out. But about two hundred years later it was used metaphorically to mean a Good Thing in the commercial world: a stock of unfulfilled orders. 
Here's where the reversal in polarity happened, possibly influenced by another meaning of log. The metaphorical ledger ... could be the record of a Bad Thing – work that hasn't been done and gets more and more embarrassing as more is added to the mountain faster than it can be done.

But no sane observer scans the airwaves, searching obsessively for people using "backlog" to refer to a Bad Thing and complaining that they've stolen its meaning. Like Aung Sang Suu Kyi, flipping from fêted to fœtid overnight.

Mr Midwinter thinks "meritocracy" is another case of such a flip – but from Bad Thing to Good Thing, rather than vice versa. I think he's simply wrong; that "meritocracy" does what it says on the tin,  and the satirical background to the first use of the word doesn't affect that meaning the notion that the word can only ever be used to refer to one side of a multi-faceted argument in the original work of fiction that gave it its first airing more than 60 years ago is frankly ridiculous.

(Not that this prevents Mr Midwinter from writing to any organ that will publish him, accusing various public figures of this "abuse":   with the search string Eric Midwinter meritocracy I get over 14,000 Google  hits –  never, in the history of human apiculture have so many bonnets attracted so many bees, vainly swatted at by so few).

On a more festive note, I'm reminded of words I sang in last Saturday's concert, in Ralph Vaughan Williams' charming Fantasia on Christmas Carols:

God bless our generation who live both far and near.

This was not Roger Daltrey's My G-G-G-Generation. I was not singing God bless all baby-boomers  but nobody else. Words change their meanings, and when someone's  meaning is clear  it's unproductive  not to say patently absurd  to insist that they are among the great majority who are all out of step.


Update: 2019.12.20.12:50  Added PS

PS I have belatedly found a source for Midwinter's article online. Here's a taste:
It is just over 60 years since Michael Young, co-founder of our marvellous U3A movement, published his perceptive and prophetic text The Rise of the Meritocracy.
He had foreseen that social mobility worked fully only once, recruiting a new oligarchy of power, influence and wealth which, like all former ruling castes, then ensured the power, influence and wealth was bestowed on its children. 
Social mobility does not obey the law of gravity; very, very few go down the social ladder to be replaced by an urgent climber-up. It is not normal to find the children of the privileged among the homeless or the customers of food banks – and vice versa. 
I fear his word has been abused to the point of it sounding like a good thing, not least in the mouths of prime ministers, including a speech by Theresa May some months back in which she used the word “meritocracy” 20 times, with perhaps unconscious irony, as if it were something for which to aspire. 
This led me to write a correcting letter to the press and I quickly evade the charge of political bias by pointing out that Tony Blair was an even worse offender, to the point where a despairing Michael Young, a short time before his death, published an article pleading with the then prime minister to refrain from using the coinage “meritocracy” as the opposite of what it actually meant.

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