From Bad to Words - Frank McNally on ‘permacrisis’ as word of the year

New noun sums up the ongoing political and economic debacles in Britain

It is a doubly damning comment on the state of things in Britain that Collins Dictionary has declared “permacrisis” its word of the year.

Not only does the new noun sum up the ongoing political and economic debacles there. It does so via a portmanteau of terms that, in less decadent times, could not have appeared together.

As descended from the Greek, crisis used to mean a decisive moment or turning point. In a medical crisis, for example, the patient is soon either recovering or dead. But in Britain’s permacrisis of 2022, there is no such resolution. Nothing changes, except prime ministers.

The London Times may have overstated the case when suggesting that the word’s popularity would “enrage classicists”. Surely only classicists with anger issues could get annoyed about such a long-sailed ship.


Even that great gatekeeper of proper English, HW Fowler (1858–1933), after reminding readers of crisis’s original meaning, restrained himself to adding: “Used loosely for any awkward, dangerous, or serious situation, it is a SLIPSHOD EXTENSION.”

Mind you, the capitalisation there also invited me to look up his entry on slipshod extensions, which was entertainingly cranky.

“Slipshod extension is especially likely to occur when some accident gives currency among the uneducated to words of learned origin”, it begins, and continues in similarly high dudgeon for a whole page, in the process accusing repeat extenders of “the crime of verbicide”.

Among the many slipshod examples Fowler cited was ‘optimism’, which used to mean a belief “in the definitive ascendancy of good”, but which, even in his time, had become a synonym of mere “hope”. Such misuses, he ranted, “owe their vogue to the delight of the ignorant in catching up a word that has puzzled them when they first heard it, and exhibiting their acquaintance with it as often as possible”.

So influential was his guide then and later that the author’s name became a metonym. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern Usage has long outlived the man, and people still refer to it simply as “Fowler” although modern editions are descriptive rather than prescriptive and vastly more tolerant of changing norms.

The original Fowler would have hated “permacrisis”. But his ghost may take some comfort in the fact that in Britain, for now, even optimists of the slipshod kind are scarce.

The Wales people, as we may soon have to call them, could now be going the same way as their Celtic cousins to the north

In an unrelated development – or is it? – Times columnist and former Conservative MP Matthew Parris was writing this week about a recent change in the way certain British ministers describe themselves. Where the Secretary of State for Wales used to be abbreviated to “Welsh secretary”, he or she was now increasingly “Wales secretary” instead. Parris guessed this arose from sensitivity about the verb “to welsh”, which means to renege on a debt.

As I’ve noted here before, that seems to be part of an historical trend whereby the English have traduced the natives of all nearby countries by making their ethnic adjectives an insult of some kind.

Hence, for example, “French leave”, “Dutch courage/bargain”, “Scotch fiddle” (an itch of intimate body parts, sexually transmitted), and of course the many illogical things said to be “a bit Irish”.

The Wales people, as we may soon have to call them, could now be going the same way as their Celtic cousins to the north. Various unflattering uses of “Scotch” must be part of the reason that the people formerly so known now prefer the adjective “Scots” or “Scottish” instead.

The unconnected verb “to scotch”, by the way, was also on old Fowler’s list of slipshod extensions. He was especially annoyed at its misuse because in Macbeth, Shakespeare had gone to the trouble of illustrating the correct meaning: “We have scotch’d the snake, not kill’d it.” Despite which, many people – especially journalists – used it in the latter sense.

Quoting one reporter’s lament that a false rumour had not yet been “entirely scotched”, Fowler sniffed: “A writer who […]does not know the difference between a rumour and the contradiction of a rumour can hardly be expected to recognise so supersubtle a distinction as that between wounding and killing.”

As for “Scotch” as an adjective for the natives of Scotland, he noted their “supposed dislike”. The modern Fowler’s Dictionary confirms that it is now found mainly in such terms as “Scotch broth”, “Scotch egg” and “Scotch terrier” – “or on the lips of unsuspecting American tourists”.

Mind you, modern Fowler adds, “these are middle-class preferences”. The dictionary also quotes the Scottish lexicographer and Scots language scholar AJ Aitken (1921-1998) saying: “For working-class Scots the common form has long been Scotch [while] Scots is sometimes regarded as an Anglicised affectation.”