Mind your language

Special status

25 February 2016

3:00 PM

25 February 2016

3:00 PM

‘Special status?’ said my husband. ‘You mean like executioners, butchers and undertakers in Japan?’

I hadn’t suggested that, but had been thinking aloud about the phrase which, according to David Cameron, now describes Britain’s position in Europe: special status.

My husband once went to Japan, which, he thinks, makes him an expert. He learnt about the ancient monkey performances given by people called Burakumin, a sort of untouchable. Apart from performing with monkeys, which was banned in the 20th century, they have been associated with unclean trades such as those he mentioned.

Special, as I have remarked before, is slippery. The special relationship between Britain and America has at times been highly valued. In 1986, as Charles Moore notes in the latest volume of his biography, Margaret Thatcher insisted: ‘Special means unique, unique to Britain and the United States.’ Is that what Britain has, within the EU? Or is it like the ‘special status’ that Jammu and Kashmir have in the Constitution of India? Or perhaps like the varieties of special status recognised (retrospectively) for the Danelaw in Anglo-Saxon England or for the People of the Book in Islamic polity.

Special is used as a word that confers agreeable qualities. Magazines bring out special issues; the Six-Five Special’s steamin’ down the line. Special offers sound cheaper. Breakfasters eat Special K; Chinese-restaurant diners eat special fried rice.

Yet special may be a euphemism, as with special clinics for treating venereal disease. Schools are put into special measures. Some are already special schools, which may be good or bad. Special forces, if they are ours, are reckoned good and brave. The FBI had special agents; Harris Tweed in the Eagle was an Extra Special Agent.

A glory of 21st-century British politics is the special adviser. Some are larval forms that transmute into an imago as an MP. The Milibands are examples. Others seem fully formed, such as Ed Llewellyn, the Downing Street chief of staff. Last year he became a Privy Councillor, of which there are now more than 500. But to be one is still quite special.

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