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Thu 21 November 2019
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(n.) the courage to stand up for what you believe is right 


It’s fair to say there was no shortage of ammunition for this week’s Word of the Week. For one thing, there’s a new pet in Downing Street. And Boris Johnson has adopted a dog. So, we could have opted for dedititious, an 18th Century adjective describing someone who hands complete control of themselves over to someone else.

But, no, we went with something else. 

Speaking of the Prime Minister, as well as this week becoming the first Premier since the Earl of Roseberry to lose his maiden vote in the House of Commons, he also haemorrhaged his party’s already slim majority.

On Tuesday, Conservative MP Dr Philip Lee crossed the floor and defected to the Lib Dems midway through Johnson’s G7 speech, and then Johnson saw fit to remove the whip from nearly two dozen of his own MPs – with a combined parliamentary experience between them of more than four centuries – to leave himself with an effective Commons majority of –43. 

As is often the case with supremely evocative German words like this one, this word carries a number of subtle connotations and nuanced implications beneath its surface.

Among those he ejected from his party were two former Chancellors, a former Lord Chancellor, the Father of the House, and the grandson of his personal hero Winston Churchill.

So, perhaps we could have picked accismus – a term from rhetoric for a feigned shunning or refusal of something that you actually really want or need? Or, given that Johnson’s own brother has now stepped down as a minister in protest at his actions, how about adelphomachy – a conflict between brothers? 

But, no. Still the search for a word went on. 

In an attempt to extinguish what was fast becoming a political self-immolation, Johnson also hastily tried to shoehorn the Commons into voting for an election this week – despite stating 24 hours earlier that he categorically didn’t want one.

Worth bearing in mind, then, that to jeofail is to go back on a statement or to renege an agreement, while an aftergame is a plan or scheme designed to retrieve something that you have lost. Still, we didn’t go with either of those. 

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Instead, with Johnson’s ‘do or die’ approach to leaving the EU on Halloween beginning to crumble (perhaps, dare we hope, taking the entire Brexit debacle with it), ironically we went with a European import: zivilcourage – literally meaning “civil courage” – which is a German word for the courage to stand up for what you believe is right. 

As is often the case with supremely evocative German words like this one, this word carries a number of subtle connotations and nuanced implications beneath its surface.

In its native German, zivilcourage is often specifically applied to situations in which standing up for your beliefs comes at great personal risk; against near impossible odds; or is the direct result of other people failing to do the same. 

And if that sounds like something that applies to the House of Commons’ 21 newly independent Conservative members, then you can see why we’ve chosen it this week. 

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