Dot Wordsworth

The changing face of ‘values’

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‘Don’t they know what prolific means?’ asked my husband, looking up in a bad-tempered way from a headline on the BBC website: ‘Lucy Letby: Investigating the UK’s most prolific child killer.’

Sky News, the Mail, Reuters and the CheshireLive website used the phrase too. Prolific comes from the Latin prolificus, meaning ‘producing or capable of producing offspring’. It can be used figuratively to mean ‘abundantly creative’ or just ‘productive’. A poet might deliberately use the phrase prolific child killer as a harsh oxymoron. For a journalist to use it in such a context is deplorable.

A word far less easy to pin down is now widely used as a weapon: values. A venue that the comedian Graham Linehan had booked in Edinburgh cancelled the booking because it thought his views did ‘not align with our overall values’. That might have reminded readers of the Coutts report on Nigel Farage, which identified ‘commentary and behaviours that do not align with the bank’s purpose and values’.

Rishi Sunak spoke about the Hindu values of ‘selfless service, devotion and keeping faith’. He said these ‘Hindu values are very much shared British values’, as indeed they are. Can there be British values that are not Hindu values or vice versa? Perhaps the roast beef of Old England might not fit, but then nobody would think vegetarianism in itself un-British.

Anyway, value was already diverse in meaning in the 13th century. It could mean ‘price’ or even ‘social standing’. We still use it of physical things such as property or the togs of duvets. In law it could mean the estimated worth of a marriage arranged by a lord for an infant ward or heir.

The meaning ‘principles or moral standards’ is more recent and American in origin.

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