Mind your language

Why ‘safe’ is Dot Wordsworth’s word of the year

10 December 2015

3:00 PM

10 December 2015

3:00 PM

‘Makes me feel sick,’ said my husband, referring not to the third mince pie of the morning (in Advent, supposedly a penitential time of preparation), nor to accepting a glass of champagne after having earlier accepted a glass of whisky at another house. No, what made him feel sick was the seasonal greeting: ‘God bless, and be safe.’ For once, I agreed with him.

It was bad enough to be exhorted to drive safely or even stay safe during periods when terrorists had eased off a bit (after peak IRA, but before 2001). But now, with a fashion for shooting civilians in unexpected places, to be told to be safe makes no more sense than to be told to be rich. Yet safe is the word of 2015.

The most bizarre manifestation of the current desire for safety is the demand by some students that universities should be safe spaces — ‘free from violence, harassment and abusive language’. By a kind of doctrinaire centralised thinking, this had led to banning guest speakers held to be guilty of thought-crimes such as ‘transphobia’. Transphobia is saying or thinking the wrong thing about those who adopt a different sexual role from that into which they were born.

But it wasn’t just Germaine Greer. The Student Union at University College London banned the Nietzsche Club on the grounds that it was ‘promoting a far-right, fascist ideology’. Perhaps it was. But the nub of the ban was that this ‘fascism is directly threatening to the safety of the UCL student body’.

Then, in the autumn, a student at Warwick objected to attending a ‘sexual consent’ workshop. ‘Self-appointed teachers of consent: get off your fucking high horse,’ he said. But he was told angrily by other students that his re-education was necessary to make ‘campuses safer environments for everyone’.

The value put on safety in the world outside academe had been exemplified in the summer by the liquidation of Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Ltd. After burglars tunnelled into its vault over Easter, stealing £14 million of goodies, customers thought it a less attractive place to keep them. I found it odd that some reporters called it a safety-deposit company, but I find that safety-deposit has been an alternative to safe-deposit for 150 years.

As for an ordinary safe, we picture something with a big keyhole or combination-lock. But centuries earlier, safe meant what we call a meat-safe. The 15th-century English-Latin dictionary for children, the Promptorium Parvulorum, gives the translation of almery (aumbry) or save as cibutum, which I think in classical Latin had simply meant ‘food’. In 1688 that strange man Randle Holme, born into a long line of heralds, gave a charming definition of safe in his Academie of Armorie, a book later described as ‘a fascinating encyclopaedia masquerading as a book of heraldry’. He wrote that an ‘Arke or Safe, is a kind of little house made of wood and covered with haire cloth, and so by two rings hung in the middle of a Roome, thereby to secure all things put therein from the cruelty of devouring rats and mice’.

In the new and unreal world of the internet, a familiar set of initials (though not familiar to me) is NSFW. These stand for Not Safe For Work. They indicate that some website is too pornographic, violent or similarly unsuitable for viewing in the workplace, where so many people spend their time online. This explains the title of a comedy series, Not Safe For Work, that Channel 4 broadcast in the summer. It was about some civil servants relocated to Northampton. The Independent called it ‘a portrait of a generation of youngish professionals who stay out too late on work nights, not because the party’s still fun, but because society offers them no real incentive to sober up’. Although I do own a television, I can’t say that I noticed any of its six episodes.

For Shakespeare, secure and safe was a synonymous doublet. But we distinguish, thinking of national security or the security services, differently from snug safety. Security can also be a false friend when glancing at foreign politics, for the security that voters in France or Germany seek is what we would call law and order. When British voters say they don’t feel safe in the streets, they would not normally call it a failure in security.

In September, David Cameron was urged to support the idea of safe havens for refugees from the war in Syria. These havens were also called zones, and Mr Cameron told the House of Commons: ‘If you’re going to designate safe zones you have to make sure they are safe.’

Havens by their nature had better be safe. The phrase safe haven has been current since the 16th century, along with safe harbour. An example comes in the work of that sarcastic propagandist for Protestantism, Barnabe Googe (1540–94), whose Popish Kingdome, or, Reigne of Antichrist, a translation of a Latin work by the German Reformer who called himself Thomas Naogeorgus, accidentally gives many charming details of the year’s festivities. I got to know it through Leofranc Holford-Strevens and Bonnie Blackburn’s admirable Oxford Companion to the Year. ‘And on the Thursday,’ Googe writes of the third week before Christmas, ‘Boyes and Girles do runne in every place,/ And bounce and beate at every doore, with blowes and lustie snaps./ And crie, the advent of the Lorde, not borne as yet perhaps.’ Anyway, ‘A gorgeous Ile, an earthly paradyse,’ writes Googe in his Shippe of Safegarde (a work intended to convert his recusant sisters in law), ‘Doth please the eye, and doth allure the minde/ Of men that think safe harbour there to finde.’

Today, such is public approval of health and safety, it is surprising politicians do not resurrect Baldwin’s slogan ‘Safety First’, used in the 1929 general election. It was intended to highlight Lloyd George’s unreliability. It may have succeeded, but instead of the Liberals, Labour won the election. In reality, Baldwin never played safe in his political career, and soon he was sticking his neck out again in agreeing to serve in a National government under Ramsay MacDonald, only to supplant him in 1935. Baldwin wasn’t exactly Shakespeare’s Harry Percy, and nor am I, but it is hard not to admire Hotspur’s analysis of the precautionary principle: ‘’Tis dangerous to take a cold, to sleep, to drink; but I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.’

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments