Mind your language

What’s humanitarian about a humanitarian crisis?

A strange word with a dishonourable history

23 August 2014

9:00 AM

23 August 2014

9:00 AM

‘Our first priority,’ David Cameron said this week, ‘has of course been to deal with the acute humanitarian crisis in Iraq.’ One knows what he means, but isn’t humanitarian an odd way of putting it? If it had been a vegetarian crisis or a disestablishmentarian crisis, it would be one either caused or suffered by people who professed either of those schools of thought.

Humanitarians used to be people who followed the teachings of Pierre Leroux (1797–1871), who believed in the spontaneous perfectibility of the human race. He’d soaked up the ideas of Saint-Simon and squeezed them out over Auguste Comte and George Sand. The dogma-free religion of humanity was all fairly transparent tosh, and very popular in its time.


In the first half of Victoria’s reign humanitarian and humanitarianism were generally terms of disapprobation. In the 20th century, humanitarians gradually became thought of as people who act out of humanity. By the 1930s, events that would upset humanitarians (and would call for humanitarian aid) started to be called humanitarian disasters. They might just as well have been called human disasters.

I suppose one might argue that these disasters are indeed caused by humanitarians — people who thought it was only necessary to shake a prospectus for democracy and western consumerism at a foreign culture for everyone in it to forsake their beliefs and come to worship at the temple of liberal humanism. But my business is with words, not with the invincible delusions of the political classes.

Before I go, two little developments on the meaning of gavels as symbols (Mind your language, 16 August). The University of Bedfordshire has been advertising courses in law by showing a picture of a young woman being transformed into a gowned figure with a grey wig, accompanied by thick books and a gavel. Gavels are not used in English courts. Perhaps the advertising people didn’t consult the law lecturers. One other refinement: it seems that some speakers, misled by phrases such as ‘the gavel was struck’, erroneously think that the gavel is the wooden stand rather than the mallet that strikes it. Still, to err is human — or even humanitarian.

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  • Arthur Thistlewood

    Exactly. A humanitarian crisis can only arise from an attempt to do good that has been ruined by a mishap. Some aspects of the National Health Service come to mind.

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