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Mind your language

That irritating use of ‘progressive’ is more than a century old

But not to worry: someone else will have borrowed it soon

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

I was interested by the widespread annoyance at the use of progressive by the lefty parties before the election. Irritation is not the essence of a love of language (philology), but it is a symptom. The suspicion here was that socialism is so pejorative that a euphemism was being sought.

It is true that when Milton wrote of ‘Their wandring course… Progressive, retrograde, or standing still,’ he wasn’t referring to the left, the right and the Lib Dems. He was taking about the apparent motion of the planets relative to the sun and other stars, a science more familiar to learned people of his day and before than today. A synonym for progressive was prograde.


But even in the familiarly foggy terrestrial world of politics, progressive has been a hooray word in some mouths for a long time. Though Samuel Johnson could write of ‘the progressive descents of the species’, by the time of Disraeli in 1844, it was already in a past era that ‘odious distinctions were not drawn between Finality men and progressive Reformers’. I think my husband is a Finality Man.

Two can play at awarding the progressive label. It is not a secure property of the left. Progressive education was the invention (in a book of 1828, translated from French into English in 1838) of Albertine Necker de Saussure, a Swiss Calvinist, and only later was it thrust into the socialist swag bag. By the 1950s, Mary McCarthy in The Groves of Academe was able to picture satirically ‘a progressive community where the casserole and the cocktail and the disposable diaper reigned’.

The impression of progressive being a label for hire is reinforced in my experience by its deployment (with a connotation the dictionaries are unable to capture) in the two decades after the Second Vatican Council (which ended in 1965) by an ecclesiastical party. They claimed for their opponents the characteristics that John Henry Newman, with more humour, identified in the Ottomans: ‘Whatever be the natural excellences of the Turks, progressive they are not.’

I doubt the socialist vogue for progressive will last. You don’t have to be a doctor like my husband to be aware that a progressive disorder eventually proves fatal.

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