Saturday, August 15, 2009


From time to time language pedants register their distress at the change of use of a word. 'A perfectly acceptable noun press-ganged into use as a verb,' said the late, great Brian Redhead once of some change of use to which he objected. Today he would have a dicky fit. My latest note was that after a particularly dangerous horse-race some of the horses, we were told, had to be euthanased.

Today's word which is undergoing a tweak is 'evil.' I have always felt that people from time to time do evil things but are not wholly evil in themselves. But now the mother of Baby P, Tracey Connelly, has been identified the red tops seem very keen to brand her as evil. An evil person. No shades of grey. The stock photo of her is not especially alluring and it is constantly re-used. Shades of Myra Hindley and that photo. Hearing about Connelly's background and upbringing I would be more inclined, whilst not excusing her behaviour for a moment, to describe her also as a victim.

I think we are seeing a change in use of the word evil. A person who does one especially evil thing once will forever be marked as evil in themselves. It is beginning to work as a branding instrument. Evil Tracey Connelly. I think it is slap-dash. It lets us off the hook for our responsibility not to raise people who do cruel things in our society.

Torturing a baby is such a horrible thing to imagine that we feel more comfortable placing the mark of the beast on the forehead of the perpetrator than wondering how it came to this and how we can avoid it in future. People do evil. It's bad but it's not ontological, it's dysfunctional.

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