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A small but significant spat has erupted in Britain recently about the meaning of the word meritocracy. It’s especially interesting because not only do we know who coined it, but he’s still very much around to argue about it.

The current furore began with the recent British General Election, in which Tony Blair, the Labour Prime Minister, made much of his commitment to what he regularly described as meritocracy. This word is very widely used, even more so in the United States than in Britain. It is usually employed in the sense in which Mr Blair seems from his speeches to have meant it — a social system which allows people to achieve success proportionate to their talents and abilities, as opposed to one in which social class or wealth is the controlling factor.

But this, as recent counterblasts have made clear, is not what the word was coined to mean. Michael Young invented it in 1958 in his book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. He pointed out in an article in the Guardian last month that he had intended a prophetic satire on what might happen if we placed gaining formal educational qualifications over all other considerations. This, he had argued, would lead to the permanent rejection of anybody who was unable to jump through the educational hoops, including many otherwise able working-class men and women. It would also result in the rise of a new exclusive social class as discriminatory as the older ones. So the word as he used it was not a positive one, but deeply negative in its implications for the future of society.

The problem with it, of course, was that Mr Young used the wrong word as the basis of his creation. Merit, as usually understood, has little to do with educational achievement as such (perhaps he was thinking of such terms as course merit?). And if you look at the history of the word, what is most strange about it is that originally it meant getting what one deserved, whether good or bad, even a just punishment for some sin, a sense that still survives in the verb and in legal usage.

It is the fate of prophets to be ignored, but in this case the very reason why Michael Young coined the word has been forgotten. The word as commonly employed (say by current British prime ministers) now has a radically different sense from the one he had intended.

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Page created 21 Jul 2001