The increasingly complex constellation of Covid-19 restrictions for various parts of the country, which the prime minister can’t be bothered to memorise, are called “the measures”. The government will not hesitate to take further measures, while Keir Starmer will continue to criticise the measures if he likes.
Our word “measure”, as in to ascertain the dimensions of something, can be traced via Latin mensura to Greek metron, whence we also get the metre and geometry (measurement of the Earth). Since the late 17th century a “measure” can also be a course of action designed to achieve some end, and later a statute too. Other measures might be special, or disciplinary, or proportionate.
The bland and bureaucratic tone of describing actions as “measures” is rhetorically helpful when, for example, “all necessary measures” is used as a euphemistic threat of war in international politics. In pandemic affairs it also conflates things that have become law with things that remain merely “guidance”, and conveys the perhaps erroneous idea that our leaders are acting in a measured, or careful, way. We may at least be confident that the prime minister is not thinking of the old sense of “measure” as temperance or abstemiousness.
• Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus.