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Pronounced /ˈwɛlfɛə/Help with pronunciation

The British Labour government recently unveiled a discussion document (a green paper in parliamentary jargon) on the future of the welfare state, grandly entitled New Ambitions for Our Country: a New Contract for Welfare, following up the “Welfare to Work” scheme which came into force this week for encouraging welfare recipients back into work (that title will strike a chord for American readers, indicating just how far the language of political discourse in Britain has moved towards a transatlantic model in the past year). The word welfare, like the closely-related wealth, has moved a long way since it first appeared in the fourteenth century.

It was formed as a combination of well, in the sense we still use it, with fare. The latter was originally a verb meaning “to travel” (the modern German verb fahren is a close relative). So the phrase “fare well” was a wish on parting that you should have a safe journey, which later became our farewell (in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare uses both forms in one sentence: “Farewell my dearest sister, fare thee well”). Our modern sense of the price of a journey rather than the journey itself is a classic case of a transferred meaning. A figurative sense grew up of how you were doing or how well you were being provided for (“how are you faring?”), and this was the origin of the word in its sense of “food” (as in bill of fare).

Originally welfare meant the state or condition of how well one was doing, of one’s happiness, good fortune or prosperity. Shakespeare has Queen Margaret say in Henry VI: “Take heed, my lord; the welfare of us all / Hangs on the cutting short that fraudful man”. And John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690): “Thus the being and welfare of a man’s children or friends, producing constant delight in him, he is said constantly to love them”.

This remained so until the beginning of this century, when changes in the relationship between individuals and the state caused an extended sense to appear of an organised effort to maintain the members of a community in a state of well-being, both physical and economic. One reason for this new usage was that older terms, particularly charity, had too many unacceptable overtones relating to recipients’ loss of self-respect and dignity in accepting help. So welfare was useful in expressing similar ideas but without this historical baggage of associations.

Its rise was fairly meteoric, with welfare work being spotted first in 1903, welfare manager in 1904, welfare policy in 1905, and welfare centre in 1917. The defining term in this lexicon, at least in Britain, welfare state, is first recorded in 1941.

One result of this new usage was that the word moved from being a term for a condition to one for a process or activity. For example, Arnold Bennett wrote in Pretty Lady in 1918: “Canteens, and rest-rooms, and libraries, and sanitation, and all this damned ‘welfare’ ”. It also took on the penumbra of associations that charity had before it; many examples are recorded of people in need refusing to take assistance, despite being firmly told that “you’re entitled to it; it’s not charity”.

These days it often generates negative associations quite foreign to those who pioneered the welfare revolution and which users of the word before this century would not have understood. This was amply demonstrated this week when Harriet Harman, the British Social Security Secretary partly responsible for the Green Paper, wrote in the Guardian concerning welfare reform that “Voters ... have resoundingly rejected high taxation and hand- outs for the poor”. It’s a view of welfare in its modern sense which the veteran Labour politician Roy Hattersley described in a stinging reproof in the same newspaper two days later as one that “even a mildly radical government should not tolerate” and which led to policies having “an ugly undertone of resentment”.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 04 Apr 1998