What have these two definitions got in common?

  1. People who spend more than 10% of their income (not sure if that is net or gross) on fuel for heating
  2. Households who have an income that is 60% or less of the national median income. (National median income is currently about £360 per week after tax)

Answer – the label we put on both these definitions includes the word, ‘poverty’. ‘Fuel Poverty’ and ‘Relative Poverty’.

Having definitions like these that are clearly stated and well understood are useful. Once something is clearly defined it can be measured and tracked, then it can be debated and perhaps even changed.

But this use of the word, ‘poverty’ bothers me. It’s quite a potent word and to me conjours up images of dispossessed and hungry masses. Say ‘poverty’ and I think Victorian workhouse or aid camps in war-torn African countries. I’m in no way suggesting having to spend a large portion of your income on something as basic as keeping warm isn’t an important issue, but ‘poverty’? Really?

Now I realise I’m opening up myself to an accusation of hypocrisy here because in one of my earlier posts I argued that we should all just chill out about changing uses of words. Presumably every change in the usage of a word begins with the misuse of that word so maybe I just need to heed my own advice, but I really do feel like I’m being manipulated when I hear terms like ‘Fuel Poverty’. It probably is too much of a mouthful to go round saying, ‘People who spend more than 10% of their income on fuel for heating’ so a snappier moniker was needed, but the person who came up with ‘Fuel Poverty’ really was pushing their agenda a bit too far. “I want everyone to think this issue is as important as I do, so I’ll throw the word ‘poverty’ in there to give all the apathetic dolts out there a shock.”

And as for ‘Relative Poverty’ that’s even more contentious. Consider the final years of the last Labour government, they did a fantastic job of reducing ‘Relative Poverty’ and they achieved this miracle by some clever new initiative called ‘ruining the economy’; you see now we’re all poor, the poor are relatively richer. Doh!

“Gay”, “Marriage”

Whenever I hear anyone arguing the con side of the gay marriage debate they inevitably come up with the following point; we’re in danger of redefining the word, ‘marriage’ and that would be wrong. ‘Marriage’, they say, is between a man and a woman; not a man and his dog or a woman and her woman, but a man and a woman – that’s what the word means and there the debate should end. People of the same gender can couple off, but don’t, whatever you do, call this marriage, because it isn’t – the dictionary tells us so.

This focus on the ‘definition’ puzzles me. Are these people guerrilla lexicographers fighting to preserve the English language from change? Is their beef really nothing to do with religion and sexuality at all and they would be equally irate with any change in the usage of any word? Do they think the dictionary is some holy book given to us by a higher being and we risk Its wrath if we try to undo Its work?

If so, they really should have a look at the word, ‘gay’. Initially it meant happy and carefree, then it came to mean homosexual and now it is starting to mean a bit naff. This last redefinition isn’t complete yet, just ask Chris Moyles who got a lot of criticism for using this usage, particularly from gays who, rather ironically in the context of this post, accused him of redefining the word, ‘gay’ (they should maybe hook up with the ‘marriage’ definition people, they’d have a lot in common).

Words change meaning; get used to it. People tell me that ‘ginormous’ isn’t a word, but if you say it or write it everyone knows what it means, therefore it is a word.

There is a more serious side to this point though. The anti-redefinition-of-the-word-marriage crowd suggest that homosexies should be able to conjoin in a way that is almost exactly like a marriage, but just isn’t called ‘marriage’. That then would be perfectly fair – separate, but equal – everybody happy.

Apart from me…

‘Separate, but equal’ was the argument that allowed segregationist policies to continue in deep south America prior to the civil rights movement in the ’60’s. I’m not, of course suggesting the anti-redefinition-of-the-word-marriage lot are in any way as bad as the white supremacists, but it’s the same principle.

I can see no other reason for wanting to label something differently other than wanting to treat it differently.