Language has always changed. It’s the meaning that’s important – leader comment

Advice that Scotland’s new welfare agency should not use the term ‘benefits’ to avoid stigmatising people is not as far-fetched as it might sound.

Modern English are markedly different from the version spoken during the 14th-century when this bible dictionary was published (Picture: SWNS)
Modern English are markedly different from the version spoken during the 14th-century when this bible dictionary was published (Picture: SWNS)

There are those who attempt to insist that a particular language is fixed, written in stone, and that those who fail to conform to the ‘correct’ usage are to be criticised, ridiculed or even pilloried. For some, the split infinitive “to boldly go” borders on the criminal.

However, even the Queen’s English has changed over time and meaning can be a particularly slippery quality. This was demonstrated most acutely when lexicographers gave in, to the horror of traditionalists, about the literal meaning of the word literally.

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After years of ‘misuse’ – in phrases such as “OMG, I literally died when I found out” (see Oxford English Dictionary) or “I will literally turn the world upside down” (see Merriam-Webster) – most dictionaries now accept it can be used as a form of hyperbole.

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A word can also turn into an insult. ‘Spastic’ was once used to refer to muscle spasms before it became a term of abuse in the playground; ‘bastard’ was a legal term, although this was used in parallel with its derogatory form; and ‘dumb’ originally meant someone who was unable to speak, before it turned into a synonym for ‘stupid’.

So advice that Scotland’s new welfare agency should avoid using the word ‘benefit’ because it might stigmatise people who claim state support is perhaps not a huge surprise. This is not a criticism of whoever first came up with the term – clearly, ‘benefit’ has traditionally been a positive word.

As the connotations of words change, it is worthwhile revisiting their use in an official way. Only a tiny minority of people who receive ‘benefits’ are “benefits scroungers” but if the two words are now so closely interlinked that all are tarred with the same brush perhaps it is time to switch to more neutral terms like ‘support’, ‘assistance’ or simply ‘payment’. Whatever anyone thinks about those who receive money from the state, the cash should not come with official, government-sanctioned verbal abuse.

However, it’s also important not to get too carried away with the whole process. Bill Scott, of the charity Inclusion Scotland, said using words that avoid stigmatising people was important to ensure disabled people, for example, claim the money they need, but also stressed that the importance of avoiding confusion with the same aim in mind. Too many name changes or the use of increasingly obscure terms will not help anyone.