The book is continually interesting; never more so, from my point of view, than when it is plainly wrong; but it is usually right, I could not deny. More than 100 familiar words, usually with some derivatives and opposites thrown in, are examined for a few pages each, so that it goes at a fair pace. The primary aim is to clear up confusion, so the author describes not only the varieties of meaning in a word but the various controversies in which they get used. Also he recognizes that these different meanings within one word are liable to interact, so that they form “compacted doctrines,” as when native was taken to imply “all subjected peoples are biologically inferior”; and he decides that many of our common words regularly tempt us to accept wrong beliefs, usually political ones. He does not say that resistance to them is beyond human power, which would make his book useless, but his introduction offers very little hope from the technique he provides. For example: “to understand the complexities of the meanings of class contributes virtually nothing to the resolution…of actual class disputes”; “what can really be contributed is not resolution but perhaps, at times, just that extra edge of consciousness”—meaning perhaps that an enlightened orator might swing votes by understanding the psychology of his audience. It is a dark picture as a whole.

Part of the gloom, I think, comes from a theory which makes our minds feebler than they are—than they have to be, if they are to go through their usual performance with language. The entry on the word interest is a good example. Our modern uses of the word, he explains, derive from capitalist procedures, and at first ranged from “compensation for loss” to “investment with a right or share.” In medieval times, usury was forbidden, but compensation was allowed, so there could be a gradual development of capitalist practices; interest in the modern financial sense had arrived by the end of the sixteenth century. But the “subjective” use, for curiosity or attention, is not clear before the nineteenth century:

The question is whether this sense of an object generating such interest is related to the active sense of interest—of money generating money…. It seems probable that this now central word for attention, attraction and concern is saturated with the experience of a society based upon money relationships.

So the poor word is like an old prayer-book which had been clutched by Mary Queen of Scots at her beheading and is still saturated with her blood; it is accursed. But there is no evidence for this linguistic phenomenon. We would often like an influence from past uses to survive in a word, when it plainly doesn’t. Jane Austen was relentless in making phrases for her ladies such as “found herself obliged to be attached” (to a barely rich enough man); she would be bound to use the pun on interest, if it had not felt too remote. A young man of the period who was so interested in poetry that he neglected his city interests would not regard this thought as the material for an epigram, only as a slight ugliness to be avoided by rephrasing. A pun of this sort can only impose a doctrine upon as if both meanings arise naturally in one context, with a standard interpretation, perhaps: “Everyone knows, in such a case, that the more sordid procedure is the correct one.” The book needed to give an example of it.

This is not to deny that a novelist may think about the word in his own person. Thus Bob Duport, in The Kindly Ones (by Anthony Powell, part of a long series), says there is sure to be a war:

If I’d been in South America, I’d have sweated it out there. Might in any case…. I’ve always been interested in British Guiana aluminium. That might offer something.

Two novels later, we hear that he got caught by the war, and had rather a good one as some kind of army administrator, though it has “quieted him down.” Almost at the end of the whole series, he turns up in a bath chair at a picture exhibition; he has been collecting late Victorian seascapes for years, making practically a corner in them, and is selling the lot now that the prices are at their peak. No doubt it will see him through his last years. The author may be murmuring: “Aren’t businessmen extraordinary! He really was interested, both times”; but the “keyword” has only been used once, with no weight on it, at the start of the sequence, and clearly has no effect on the mind of Duport. Probably it makes an intentional dramatic irony, but there is no need for the reader to notice it.


A curious remark in a bracket comes in the middle of the entry on interest:

(Disinterested is still used, with what are intended to be positive implications, to express a personal habit not only of “unbiased” but of “undogmatic” concern. It is also being used, increasingly often, to mean simply not interested, and this gives substantial offence to those to whom the former sense is still important.)

“Those” are the bosses, a reader may be sure, who have thought up another method here for deceiving the workers with their tainted words. But why still, and where does dogma come from? Surely, at any date, in a football match, you want a ref who hasn’t been nobbled by either side? To imply that only the bosses could want such a thing is an insult to the proles, such as they too often get from their supposed champions. And, the more you feel horrified by even a remote thought of a percentage, the more you need assuring that it is absent. I grant that the ref should not be too bored to pay attention, but an appearance of decent coolness is expected of him. It is not a very good or necessary word, but this furtive explosion against it suggests trouble within.

The word common is viewed with grave distaste, all the more because it has good uses such as “the common weal” or “the common good”:

It is difficult to date the derogatory sense of common. In feudal society the attribution was systematic…the clear derogatory use seems to increase from the early nineteenth century…. People, sometimes the same people, say “it’s common to eat ice-cream in the street”…but also “it’s common to speak of the need for a common effort” (which may indeed be difficult to get if many of the people needed to make it are seen as common).

The second invented sentence must be supposed to mean “there is frequent mention of the need for co-operation,” but one has to guess because nobody would say it; we automatically avoid puns that feel pointless. And what bad effect is the sentence supposed to have? Conceivably it might insinuate “the workers are disloyal,” but this is not one of the regular tricks of the word; I expect it never occurs. To prove that it occurs would take more than a sentence invented for the purpose. And then, the word common is used, says the author, “to mean vulgar, unrefined and eventually low-class,” but he does not treat these words as bad; they are not, in the same way, suasive. A medieval word meaning serfs is innocent; but, after the serfs have been officially liberated, if a word insinuates that they are not much better off, it is malignant.

I think there really is a trick about common for “low-class.” The usage is assumed to be itself low-class, so that the better-class person saying it is having fun, talking in inverted commas. For example, Maugham in a long article full of praise for Arnold Bennett says he was always very common, though Maugham himself was not at all inclined to daff the demands of gentility aside. Probably he meant that Bennett stuck to the Midland pronunciations of his boyhood, whereas most men who have risen so early adapt their language to their company—and similar points which Maugham could find amusingly stubborn. And then there is a splendid cry in More Work for the Undertaker by Margery Allingham, where Clarrie says: “Dear, dear, sweet old girl. Have a lick, just a lick of common,” and he means “Have the common sense of the common people, to whom you belong” (the situation is too rich to explain briefly). Of course all snob words can be put to bad use, but this one has an unusual beneficent side.

The worst of the political entries, I think, is the one on educated. “There is a strong class sense” about the term, says the book, and:

the level indicated by educated has been continually adjusted to leave the majority of people who have received an education below it….It remains remarkable that after nearly a century of universal education in Britain the majority of the population should in this use be seen as uneducated or half-educated, but whether educated people think of this with self-congratulation or self-reproach, or with impatience at the silliness of the usage, is for them to say.

There was a young man reported from America as suing his school because it hadn’t taught him to read in five years, and in England the Education Department keeps trying to destroy the old grammar schools, because they actually teach, thus wickedly destroying the indestructible equality of the children. This entry implies that we must accept anything whatever that a government imposes upon our children; if the government calls it education, never mind if the child knows less than he would have picked up if left on the streets. It is totalitarian; quite unconsciously, of course.


Many of the entries are not political, and they show great breadth of mind, especially in showing that a controversial word contains both sides of the controversy in itself. Determine is used for determinism, the doctrine that we have no free will, but the Calvinists who believed it were particularly “determined” men, always getting their own way. The meaning of reform ranges from “restore” to “transform,” and so does any debate about how to do it. The entries on realism and representative, showing how the same range of meaning has developed in their political and artistic uses, are particularly curious, and it does seem reasonable here to ask whether there is some fundamental cause:

In the sense of the typical, which then stands for (“as” or “in place of”) others or other things, in either context, there is probably a deep common cultural assumption.

But probably the mind has to work like that, so that any culture would make the same deep assumption. As far as “imagery” goes, the Japanese have the same fallacies as the Europeans.

There is a fine long entry for subjective, a real hatchet job, and here for once the author dimly recognizes that the word might be abandoned. But no, subject and object are “inevitable words,” he says, and so their derivatives also have to be used; but these “need to be thought through—in the language rather than within any particular school—every time we wish seriously to use them.” Long ago I decided I would never write down subjective except as a quotation, and later I found myself recommending the procedure to foreign students, who need it more obviously than others. Whenever confronted with a difficulty about a word, the learner should decide whether to reject it or promote it to his own list. Intake is always much larger than output, even with native speakers of the language; and “forming a style” begins with selecting a vocabulary. I am afraid the book is liable to be rejected merely because it seems to impose such a portentous burden on a writer; but if reading it is regarded as a shopping spree the whole enterprise becomes more agreeable.

The entry for materialism drives home that this doctrine does not entail selfishness, and I warmly agree so far; but surely it might seem to recommend low-minded behavior, if interpreted coarsely or stupidly? As an account of utilitarianism, the novel Hard Times is absurdly unjust, but there actually were people like Gradgrind. And most of the bad words in this book, that get blamed for making undemocratic insinuations, could put up a similar claim to have been misunderstood. The case is perhaps not a pressing one, as the accusation of materialism is less severe than it was; but it shows that the general method of the book is very lopsided. I had a large composition class in communist Peking, soon after the liberation, and tried to set essay subjects which were politically neutral, but the ruling interest could not be kept out, and students would often write down (well, three times, as I remember):

The Americans are very wicked because they are so material, and the Russians are very good because they are so material.

It was not my business to interfere with their propaganda, but I had to say that this was not correct English prose. “How do you say it in English, then?” they answered, unconcerned; and I gave, of course, a rough historical background to the conflict over the word, but what they expected me to do was to turn the sentence into a rousing slogan. I doubt if even Raymond Williams could have done that.

The longest entry in the book, almost seven pages, is for structural, and here my sympathy breaks down altogether; the theories he is describing seem to me terrible waffle. What he needs to consider is the structure relating two meanings in any one of his chosen words, so that they imply or insinuate a sentence: “A is B.” Under what conditions are they able to impose a belief that the speaker would otherwise resist? As he never considers that, he is free to choose any interpretation that suits his own line of propaganda.

This Issue

October 27, 1977