Mind your language

There’s something grotesque about the jargon of Universal Credit

26 January 2019

9:00 AM

26 January 2019

9:00 AM

The government (if it hasn’t fallen yet) has found difficulty moving people onto Universal Credit from the benefits that they were receiving before. The process is called managed migration and the government refers to acts of migrating claimants.

This jargon sounds the more grotesque for the associations it provokes in the imagination: of migrants or asylum-seekers being herded into boats or cast into the Channel aboard inflatable craft.

Migrate had never been a transitive verb, as something that you do to people, except in the rarest cases. The Oxford English Dictionary found an example from 1768, from the pen of Abraham Tucker, a country gentleman who took to philosophy. In The Light of Nature Pursued, he wrote about the tendency for bigger creatures to move more slowly than smaller ones, and he imagined giants as big as Hampstead Hill. ‘If we were migrated into their enormous hulks, should we not, think ye, wish ardently to get back again into our less than six-foot bodies?’

There he is using migrate in the sense of ‘transmigrate’. The transmigration of souls, which, in the case of human beings we now call reincarnation was a concept inherited from the ancient world. Shakespeare uses transmigrate in Antony and Cleopatra (of the crocodile). Earlier, in 1559, in a Life of John Fisher that used to be attributed to Richard Hall, there is a remark that ‘Luther’s Soul was transmigrated into Henry the Eighth’. The Greek term for this imagined process provided the English word metempsychosis, which Marlow uses in Dr Faustus.

The kind of migrating that we are used to is either that of wildebeest or of people. It was in this sense that the liberal daily The Westminster Gazette used immigrate in 1898 when it wrote of ‘the expense of immigrating coolie labour from the East Indies’.

If it is any consolation, migrating claimants is, I think, the casual adoption of a term from computing, dating all the way back to 1983, when someone wrote in a specialist journal about the best time ‘to migrate updated files on to a new disk’. So the poor  old claimants for Universal Credit are being likened not to wildebeest or coolie labour but to packets of digital zeros and ones.

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