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Mind your language

Game-changing

11 May 2013

9:00 AM

11 May 2013

9:00 AM

In the days when we had bottles of milk delivered, some tits discovered how to peck through the foil tops and consume the cream beneath. Suddenly all the tits were at it. This illustrated what the alternative scientist Rupert Sheldrake called morphic resonance. Something similar has happened over the past days with the phrase game-changing.

Trevor Kavanagh, in the Sun, commented: ‘The local elections delivered a ground-breaking, game-changing, seismic political moment.’ In the Independent, Donald Macintyre compared ‘Ukip’s position to that of the game-changing SDP’.


Except, in the days of the Gang of Four, the obligatory epithet was not game-changing but breaking the mould. That metaphor was used erroneously almost from the outset. It had previously meant that someone was a ‘one-off’, that when God made Shirley Williams, he broke the mould and made no other. But soon after the SDP got going, many people used the phrase to mean that the Limehouse Four had broken the stereotype, the mould in which politics was confined.

Similarly, game-changing, since its coining 50 years ago, has meant ‘producing a significant shift in the current way of doing or thinking about something’. I am not sure that this is how people are using the phrase about Ukip. It is not so much that Ukip is changing the way of doing things, merely that they are changing the result of the game of politics.

This is also the connotation of the phrase used in recent weeks about Syria. President Barack Obama had said in March that the use of chemical weapons by Syria would be a ‘game changer’. He didn’t mean that it would be a breakthrough or shift in the art of war. He meant it would change the balance of the game by playing nasty. Now his words are being quoted back at him.

I should like to relate this invocation of games to Wittgenstein’s use of language games, except I am not sure what he meant. ‘Language games are the forms of language with which a child begins to make use of words,’ he said somewhere is the Blue or Brown books in the early 1930s. That is not how others use the phrase. That’s the trouble with games, people won’t play properly.


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