I am a fan of etymology and the origins of words, but I have always known that they might sometimes be susceptible to the incorporation of urban legends. This false etymology, as linguists term it, sometimes takes the form of outwardly reasonable explanations that are essentially flawed or backronyms (acronyms that are contrived to provide an explanation for an existing term).
By way of illustration, ‘Posh’ – meaning ‘elegant, or stylishly luxurious’ – was held to be a nautically originating acronym of ‘port outward, starboard homeward’. This definition was first heard in the 1930s, but nobody knows who coined it. What we do know it that was Romany slang for ‘money’ and that use of ‘posh’ in this context can be traced back to the 1830s. Seems a lot more viable than the fishy tail, or indeed tale of our upwardly mobile seafaring socialites one hundred years later
Furthermore, ‘Crowbar’ is a word routinely and erroneously claimed to have connotations with slavery, having been supposedly derived from ‘Jim Crow’. In fact, the application of ‘crow’ to an implement with a bent and sharpened end can be traced back to the 13th Century.
Both inaccuracies are freely sprayed about today in all walks of life yet are both retrofits of available information that provide a comforting fit or support a prevailing agenda.
No such controversy over the term ‘undermine’, though, which happens to be a Frances favourite. In itself, it is hardly spectacular, does what it says on the tin, and can be tracked back to the 12th Century. ‘Undermyne’ reflected the unwelcome and hazardous practice of ‘rendering a structure unstable by digging at the foundations’. It is wonderfully rich, but we skip over its creative depth if its origins remain unknown, or unmined. Alternatively, we need to know that ‘Octopus’ is derived from Greek and not Latin so that we talk about more than one ‘Octopodes’ and not ‘Octopi’. Ok, you can have ‘Octopuses’ as well, but you get my point.
That is what is so fascinating about etymological intrigue. Sometimes we need to know, sometimes we do not. On other occasions, the origins can be enriching and at other times misleading. But there are those who just jump in and make the best of it. Or those who apply meaning in order to suit an agenda. And they’re not just fiddling with our grammatical offspring. For many, it is a modus operandi and indeed a hallmark of our post-fact society. The first port of call in many facets of life is increasingly a resolution to harness whatever factoids fit the favoured programme in accordance with the information we have to hand. Not by research that seeks evidence from wider perspectives, and challenges hypotheses, or throws itself unreservedly at the mercy of any peer review. It is all about what can be made to fly. Intellectual TV dinners for the masses.
So back to our term, undermining because that little linguistic lapis lazuli is shining brightly today.
The Russia Report by a group of British MPs has uncovered the risk of meddling in UK life and has suggested that any consideration that this extended to elections was something that nobody wanted to touch ‘with a 10-foot pole’, or two Donald Tusks. Why anybody would give a toss about the views of a cock coterie of British MPs, nobody knows, but that is where we are.
Maybe the intelligence community had simply concluded that there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary kicking about. After all, the UK – along with every other country in the world – has spooks out there dipping in and out of innumerable shady capers under the radar. It’s what intelligence communities do. Our secret agents don’t spend all day in stuffy clubs languishing in leather armchairs bemoaning the ‘dashed outrages’ of the world.
They are out there knee-deep in the most unsavoury grime. British players even get nabbed spying on fellow NATO countries and vice versa. For rubber-soling the corridors of more overtly hostile nations, they will be summarily handcuffed to a rusty radiator ad infinitum, or even sent to Jesus, and their fate will be documented only as a ‘road traffic accident’.
Knowledge is power, and disinformation is very often the flavour of the day. It arguably won the Second World War after codes were cracked at Bletchley, and during a cold war (yes, that is where we are now), it is an essential cog in the complex machinery that prevents a finger from dabbing the big red button.
The globalised Web has simply made tomfoolery more immediate, more convenient to operationalise, and deliverable on a greater scale. Instead of tuning into radio propaganda or reading books, people can log in and interact. It’s happening all over the world.
So, there were a whole load of bots sloshing through Twitter and propagating ideas? So what? They are doing exactly the same as the billions of other people on social media having their say. Yes, there are Russian bot farms, and there are US, UK, French, German and Chinese bot farms. Even the Venezuelans and the Luxembourgers will be logging on and trying to get their opinions heard. Everybody is playing the game.
Is that ‘meddling’ or ‘undermining’ or simply freedom of speech? Maybe it is more about not being naive. If you outlaw the communication of ideas because you fear that messages you do not like will be valued by an electorate, it is time to up your game.
Now, a Russian meddlefest might sound like a bonzer political narrative to explain away Brexit and Trump with a Putinesque sub-plot, along with the cruncher that for all the multiple billions of pounds sterling that we have shelled out for Nuclear deterrents and the like, Mr Putin is holing entire nations below the waterline. That all sounds jolly spiffing for one sector of society.
But the report’s findings do not detail that. The report is scathing of the Government for not holding an inquiry themselves that proved this, which the band of MPs clearly want to prove but are not able to prove.
Now that is what I call meddling.
The whole report escapade sounds more like a fake news story itself than 20,000 identical tweets mocking Guy Verhofstadt’s hair, which was the typical fare of your average Russian bot farm in 2016. In fact, I thought that the big red bus was the Jedi mid-trick that landed us with Brexit, or has that one now run out of steam? Perhaps the fear factor of COVID has convinced the Rejoin congregation that you cannot beat a mysterious shadowy essence for fear mark-10 and therefore a best last throw of the Brexit dice? For some protagonists, all roads lead to Putin, as all roads lead to EU membership. It is a ride that we are never going to get off no matter how fast and continually it spins – or is spun.
We should however acknowledge that Russian money in the UK ought to be accounted for, as ought all money. If that has been an oversight, it should be addressed. But MPs spending months looking onto poorly punctuated opinion pieces on Twitter falls seems unsatisfactorily flaccid. It is not only embarrassing but a gross double standard when we consider the collusion between UK politicians of all parties and prominent EU figures during the post-Brexit negotiations and the recent general election. Was that all tickety-boo just because it failed? Are we really expected to believe that Mr Putin could deliver Brexit but not Scottish independence two years earlier? I know which one would have destabilised the UK more. Put simply, the international, tribal cheerleading during these political wranglings was merely a fact of globalised life. Nobody coerced the voters. If you are old enough to vote, you are old enough to exercise that right responsibly.
All the gaslighting about Brexit really did need to stop, so perhaps this Russian business is a means of achieving a reversal of that decision and uniting a fractured society against a common, murky enemy?
Nevertheless, bleating about ‘Russian interference’ and gold medal meddling in world affairs while we ourselves and our allies are pulling the same old cunning stunts is hardly going to beef up our global reputation unless it is for peak hypocrisy and whinging. Particularly when we are expected to hang on the weasel words of a gang of expenses-diddling charlatans who barely qualify to draw their parliamentary stipends. It is all is too close a dig to the foundations of our weathered credibility.
And you know where that leads…