Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 13 December 2003

A Lexicographer writes

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This year we have seen a word born like one of those volcanoes off the coast of Iceland. The word is issue, in a new and puzzling meaning. It had been looming through the seawater for many months before, but now it has come hissing and steaming above the surface.

I had become used to people, usually employed in the social services, speaking of issues around things like race, ‘gender’, poverty, class, alcohol. The adoption of the pronoun around was pretty annoying, and since many of the people who used issues around were fools, I quickly came to assume its use was foolish.

Moreover the meaning of issues in this context was slippery, it almost seemed deliberately so. At first it seemed to mean ‘questions’, but in many contexts ‘problems’ seemed to fit the bill. But problem is itself ambiguous. There is the problem like a brain-teaser and another kind of problem like a drink-problem.

It is noteworthy that the first definition of issue in the Encarta Dictionary, the dictionary that those employed in the social services prefer, is ‘an important topic or problem for debate or discussion’. This implies the brain-teaser kind of problem. But immediately the Encarta gives an example: ‘money is not an issue’. Now that does not mean that money is not a topic for discussion; it means ‘no problem’, in the drink-problem sense.

There is no hint in the history of issue that it would come to mean ‘inimical problem’ or ‘objection’. The OED runs through 16 main meanings, from the issue that we are familiar with in the Bible (the woman with an issue of blood) to the issue of an updated book. Perhaps the meaning that comes closest to the marine volcano of our own day is the legal issue, and this is one of the earliest usages. At that early date the word is hardly English at all. Originating in the Latin exitus, it had made its way into Old French as issue. In the legal Year-book for 1309 we find ‘vostre plee avoir issue en ley scil[icet] en jugement le quel vous poietz avowere faire ou ne mye ou dites que nyent severe & issint avoir issue en fet’.

So there we have already a distinction between an issue in law and an issue in fact. An issue in law is exemplified by saying ‘My killing him was not murder’; an issue in fact by saying ‘I did not hit him with a spade’. Here we have a meaning like ‘question’, ‘point’ or even ‘problem (brain-teaser)’. It has taken another 706 years to develop into ‘issues around Big Issue sellers’.