Mind your language

Is your conduct unacceptably inappropriate – or inappropriately unacceptable?

11 November 2017

9:00 AM

11 November 2017

9:00 AM

‘When is physical contact “unacceptable”?’ asked Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph. He may well ask. Sir Michael Fallon said after his resignation that some things were acceptable ten or 15 years ago that weren’t today. But the panel of Any Questions? last week were invited to say whether inappropriate behaviour wasn’t always unacceptable.

It’s not just Westminster. Marseille football fans’ subjection of Patrice Evra to ‘hateful attacks’ was ‘unacceptable behaviour’, the club said, but his response in aiming a kick at a fan’s head was ‘inappropriate’.


In the lost spirit of ‘Brexit means Brexit’, theatre management back in London declared: ‘Inappropriate behaviour by anyone working at the Old Vic is completely unacceptable.’ They might as easily have said ‘Unacceptable behaviour is completely inappropriate’.

Unacceptable is such a weasel word that it seems to belong to our times especially. I suppose we’re still in the shadow of Edward Heath’s remark about Tiny Rowland’s activities at Lonrho being ‘the unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism’. But unacceptable is found in a Latin-English dictionary from 1483, translating non acceptabilis. That was two years before Henry Tudor found King Richard totally unacceptable.

There is an ancient prayer in the Canon of the Mass which asks God to make our offering acceptabilem. If anyone can make things acceptable, it is the one who accepts them, even if, in the past century, acceptable has sometimes been downgraded to mean ‘tolerable’, just as Ofsted ratings of satisfactory mean ‘unsatisfactory’. You still might think things become acceptable by being accepted. Yet airport authorities, according to the Times, last week criticised ‘unacceptable’ delays at passport control desks which caused foreigners who were trying to enter Britain to be held up for two-and-a-half hours. Unlike God, they had no choice but to accept it. Contrariwise, sinners in the workplace might have concluded that some behaviour was unexceptionable because no one took exception to it.

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