Mind your language

‘Level’ has a bumpy history

22 May 2021

9:00 AM

22 May 2021

9:00 AM

‘I must level with you, level with the British public, many more families are going to lose loved ones.’ That is what Boris Johnson said on 20 March last year. On 14 May this year, he said: ‘I have to level with you that this new variant could pose serious disruption.’

In between, the Prime Minister often spoke of levelling up. He even got the Queen at it, in her ‘Most gracious speech’, as it is formally called: ‘My government will level up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom.’ Mr Johnson explained how that is done: ‘These new laws are the rocket fuel that we need to level up this country.’ Every valley shall be exalted with rocket fuel, and every mountain and hill shall be made low with rocket fuel, as the prophet Isaiah observed. The bits neither down in a valley nor up in the mountains were on the level.

To level with someone is a phrase that originated, as recently as 1921, in America. So did on the level, used more than once by P.G. Wodehouse. He spent most of his life in America and Boris Johnson was born there, which might level his road to the White House.

Levelling up might not be a concept hammered into an agreed sense, but it has a longer history than being on the level. ‘Sir, your levellers wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves,’ declared Samuel Johnson one day in 1763, some time after having put Catharine Macaulay, the republican Wilkesite, out of countenance at dinner by suggesting she might find a seat at the table for her footman.

The word level, which provides such handy figures of speech, derives from the Latin libella, a diminutive of libra, ‘a balance’. When the scales balance the goods and the weights truly, they are on the level.

The Levellers of the English Revolution of the 17th century did not, in those years, win the fight. Since people dare not risk the income of their labour, argued James Harrison in The Prerogative of Popular Government (1657), ‘A People never will, nor ever can; never did, nor ever shall take Arms for Levelling’.

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