Words, meaning, and looking like a weapon

January 13, 2015

The English language is a subtle thing. A single word can send many bells of meaning ringing in your head. For instance, a couple of years ago I was horrified when a wedding venue emailed me to confirm the details for my ‘function’ (function?? Like a day of boring chat in a smelly room with a bad carpet? Didn’t they realise they were talking about MY BIG DAY? *diva strop*).

That’s why Ed Miliband has got himself into so much trouble. He’s accused of telling a group of BBC executives that he plans to ‘weaponise’ the NHS – something the Prime Minister describes as ‘a disgusting thing to say’.

The problem for Ed is that ‘weaponise’ is of course an extremely resonant word – it strikes a vivid chord. It’s a word of war, and – as such – brings to mind all the horror that comes with it. Troops mobilising, cities falling. And, thanks to the suffix, it’s got that cold-blooded, jargony-y flavour – that whiff of corporate speak (‘yeah, guys, we need to incentivise, verbalise, patronise and dehumanise. Action that’).

More importantly, we all accept that the words we choose say something about what we believe. I inferred lots of things from that measly word, ‘function’ – it was a clue that those smiley wedding planners who had spent all morning feeding me champagne and cooing over my engagement ring were not actually as excited about my wedding as they claimed to be, but were – in fact – just rolling another sale through the books. And Ed’s detractors have decided that this one explosive word says something about how Ed sees the NHS: not as something to make people better, but as something to wield against his enemies. Something to cause hurt and humiliation. Which is, as we all know, the opposite of everything the NHS stands for.

With this one little, loaded word, Ed has really shot himself in the foot.

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