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Mind your language

The sinister new meaning of ‘support’

Beware of social workers seeking to ‘support you into’ something

31 May 2014

9:00 AM

31 May 2014

9:00 AM

When I asked my husband why paramedical professions were given to remaking the language in strange ways, he replied in a threatening tone ‘Whadya mean?’ I think he was in denial. But it is undeniably true that where two or three trained counsellors or disability campaigners are gathered together, the first victim will be the English language. Who was it, after all, that came up with the phrase ‘issues around’?

The latest craze is to urge the need for supporting people to do something, or even into something. So, on the NHS careers website, part of the job of a social worker may be to work  with offenders, ‘supervising them in the community and supporting them to find work’.

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This quite different from clinical support or the task of maternity healthcare support workers. Those might once have been called ancillary, but that is now a dirty word. Ancillary comes from the Latin for a (female) servant. But, although the National Health Service nominally promises service, the role of a servant, even a public servant, is despised. Support is a word that, like President Putin or the late Führer, is expanding its empire. We expect support from sports bras, football fans, pillows, voters and machines for those who can’t breathe unaided. There is a great deal of difference between support that is notional assent and support that is like hard cash or hard work. Supporting a principle like gay marriage is very unlike supporting an aged parent. We are born into the world crying out for support, and, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, ‘the group of older people with high support needs is growing’.

Since it is now apparently possible to support someone to do something, this latest development in the use of support is a syntactical leap. Help, one would think, was the word required. Yet I suspect there is a semantic difference. It is not so much help that is offered, but encouragement. Nor would it be surprising if a kind of social-workerly coercion were to be exercised: if the disabled, unemployed ex-offender will not follow the course urged, he will lose points, opportunities, even £££s. Donkeys are supported with carrots and with sticks.

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