Mind your language

Did Harry and Meghan step back, step down or step away?

1 February 2020

9:00 AM

1 February 2020

9:00 AM

At this time of year in Colorado the crime of puffing is widespread. It is so cold that in the morning people often leave the car engine running to warm it up while they finish getting ready indoors. This is called puffing. It leads to dozens of cars being stolen. Characteristically, the police penalise victims, fining the puffers.

A piece of Colorado law-enforcement publicity declared: ‘Don’t step away from your running vehicle even for a second.’ This plays on the cliché employed by police who stop suspects in cars: ‘Step away from the vehicle.’ In Britain we might expect ‘car’, although the constabulary is given to polysyllables.

Last month the Duke and Duchess of Sussex announced that they would ‘step back as “senior” members of the royal family’. That did not stop newspapers describing it as a ‘bombshell decision to step down’ (the Sun) or a ‘plot to step down’ (the Mirror). Stepping down may also be for reasons of age; last month Lady Hale stepped down at the statutory retirement age of 75 as President of the Supreme Court. But it was embarrassing behaviour that forced the Duke of York to step down.

Step is a verb given to phrasal forms. Step down in the sense of ‘resign’ was originally American. Step aside had a figurative meaning 500 years ago. The man who introduced the word phrase into English grammar, John Palsgrave, gave this example in his English-French dictionary, Lesclarcissement de la langue francoyse (1530): ‘Let them lay to my charge what they lyste, I wyll never steppe a syde for it.’ Step aside has also lost three meanings: ‘to digress in a speech’, ‘to abscond’ and ‘to go astray’. Robert Burns wrote a line: ‘To step aside is human’ (which he rhymed with ‘woman’).

Taking on a responsibility (the opposite of stepping back, down, away or aside) is to step up to the plate. This figurative usage is popular with many who are ignorant of baseball. Similarly a step change is often assumed to be a good thing. (It is a discontinuous change, not a change in step by a marching body of men.) But, to me, change is not always welcome, even when it’s for the better.

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