The Financial Times reports anger at the Electoral Commission’s use of the words ‘idiot’ and ‘lunatic’ when discussing who can and cannot vote. Yet, while it seems reasonable to ask the Commission to tone down its language, on closer inspection such outrage is a rather feeble minded response. The Commission quoted from a legal judgment – which it can’t change – but has given in and apparently removed the offending words.
I’ve often battled with people who want to add more words to a document in an attempt to ‘clarify’ the words we’ve used already. Yet almost every clarification is itself open to interpretation and intended meanings are quickly lost. (I once spent weeks on a glossary of terms that explained a complex tax credit scheme. Its sponsor thought he was setting meaning in stone, but it would have been better to invent new words than expect others to subscribe to precise definitions of existing ones.)
Sheffield University follows the use of language to describe those with learning disabilities from 1324 (when nobody had heard of learning disability) and that aged legal judgement will probably be based on something like 1913’s Mental Deficiency Act which defines idiots as those with an IQ below 50. In 1324 idiots and lunatics had different rights in law, but now these words have lost their more precise meanings and become little more than insults. But in dropping them from its advice, the Commission moves its guidance a little further away from the law upon which it’s based.