Friday, February 24, 2012

Welfare, the dole, relief: Concepts use different words over time

Continuing with this week's "theme" of language, it should not come as a surprise to anyone that language evolves; it changes; it morphs; it turns. This happens for various reasons, and when it does, words that used to mean one thing take on a different or additional meaning.

For example, take the word "quaint". The modern definition is:
having an old-fashioned attractiveness or charm; oddly picturesque
However, it was also used by Chaucer to mean (whether directly or as a pun on its similarity in sound) "The female external genitals":
This hende Nicholas Fil with this yonge wyf to rage and pleye‥and pryuely he caughte hire by the queynte.
Although this usage is - according to the OED - rare after the late 16th century.

World Wide Words is a great site to look up strange, old, and weird words and phrases. There, you can see the origin of the word "burger" as well as the phrase "back to square one"... and many more.

If you look up "Welfare" on World Wide Words, you find an entry dating WAAAAY back to April 4, 1998. This is what it has to say on the subject:
The word welfare, like the closely-related wealth, has moved a long way since it first appeared in the fourteenth century.
Well, that's not at doubt at all. Many words have changed over the course of 600-odd years...
It was formed as a combination of well, in the sense we still use it, with fare. The latter was originally a verb meaning “to travel” (the modern German verb fahren is a close relative). ...

Originally welfare meant the state or condition of how well one was doing, of one’s happiness, good fortune or prosperity. Shakespeare has Queen Margaret say in Henry VI: “Take heed, my lord; the welfare of us all / Hangs on the cutting short that fraudful man”...

This remained so until the beginning of [the 20th] century, when changes in the relationship between individuals and the state caused an extended sense to appear of an organised effort to maintain the members of a community in a state of well-being, both physical and economic. One reason for this new usage was that older terms, particularly charity, had too many unacceptable overtones relating to recipients’ loss of self-respect and dignity in accepting help. So welfare was useful in expressing similar ideas but without this historical baggage of associations.
The OED backs up this description of what "welfare" meant by the early 20th century:
4a. The maintenance of members of a group or community in a state of (esp. physical and economic) well-being, esp. as provided for and organized by legislation or social effort.
Another term that was in vogue at the time - and which had its origins waaaay back in the 14th century as well, is "the dole". Going back to the OED:
6a. That which is distributed or doled out; esp. a gift of food or money made in charity; hence, a portion sparingly doled out; spec. (usu. the dole); the popular name for the various kinds of weekly payments made from national and local funds to the unemployed since the war of 1914–18. Phr. (to be or go) on the dole : (to be or start being) in receipt of such unemployment relief; also transf. and fig.

1362 Langland Piers Plowman A. iii. 63 Whon ȝe ȝiuen doles.
1480 Caxton Chron. Eng. (1482) ccxlvi. 311 A dole to poure peple of vi shyllynges viii pens to be delyd peny mele.
So, "the dole" and "welfare" were close in meaning during the end of World War I (1918ish). One could argue that there were differences in use, but the funds to which they were speaking (public monies to give to the unemployed) were the same; much like "unemployment insurance" and "welfare" are often used interchangeably in today's political rhetoric.

Why focus on the similarity of "welfare" and "the dole"? Well, because apparently PolitiFact can't understand that in Britain, since the end of World War I, "the dole" was meant as "national and local funds to the unemployed" and that "welfare" was meant as "maintenance [as provided for and organized by legislation] of members of a group or community in a state of well-being", and their meanings haven't changed too much. Indeed, if you look at another site for the definition of "dole", you get:
1. (Social Welfare) a small portion or share, as of money or food, given to a poor person
2. (Social Welfare) the act of giving or distributing such portions
3. (Social Welfare) (usually preceded by the) Brit informal money received from the state while out of work
(Social Welfare)
Wow. "The dole" = "social welfare". It's like they are synonymous or something...

What was PolitiFact doing a "fact-check" of? An MSNBC ad by Lawrence O'Donnell, which had this particular phrasing:
"It’s the most successful educational program that we’ve ever had in this country -- and the critics called it welfare."
Their verdict?
We found no evidence of critics referring to the GI Bill as welfare. Yet some fretted that the law’s unemployment compensation element would encourage laziness. We see a touch of truth to O’Donnell’s claim, which we rate Mostly False.
What are they basing this claim on? That no one in the Congress after World War II specifically used the word "welfare"... and that synonyms for welfare don't exist (or don't count as being synonymous). But they did include referents that were used for the MSNBC ad including this one:
-- Comments from Rep. Rankin about fearing a "tremendous inducement to certain elements to try to get employment compensation. It is going to be very easy… to induce these people to get on federal relief." Another Rankin comment, suggesting the proposal would reward those who delayed seeking work: "The bane of the British Empire has been the dole system." He also aired a racist comment, saying: "If every white serviceman in Mississippi… could read this so-called GI Bill, I don’t believe there would be one in 20 who would approve of it... We have 50,000 Negroes in the service from our state and in, in my opinion, if the bill should pass in its present form, a vast majority of them would remain unemployed for at least another year, and a great many white men would do the same."(emphasis mine)
So we have no mention of the term "welfare", but we do have the explicit mention of "the [British] dole system" as well as "employment compensation" and "federal relief". In other pieces that PolitiFact showed on their site, they mention it as "a relief act"; as "veterans entitled to ... schooling at government expense, including subsistence", and as "not a device for coping with mass unemployment". All of these things seem about as synonymous to "welfare" as "the dole" was shown to be above.

However, let's look also look at "relief" at the OED. Will we find that it, too, is a synonym of "welfare"? Yup:
3a. Aid, help, or assistance given to a person or persons in a state of poverty or need; spec. (formerly) assistance given to the poor from funds administered under the Poor Law or from parish doles; (more recently) financial assistance given to those in need by the state under some other legislative provision, such as a system of social security. Also, in recent use: food or other supplies given as assistance in response to a particular disaster, crisis, etc.; freq. as second element in compounds. (emphasis added)

Hmmm.... So "the dole" and "relief" can act as synonyms of "welfare"! It's merely that - as the OED says - relief has recently come to be used in cases of disasters or crises.

But to give PolitiFact a little due, they did place a lot of their burden on the backs of history professors - Stephen Ortiz and Nancy Beck Young. No word in the universities' newspapers about the views of Ortiz and Young about PolitiFact's verdict, nor of the annoyance from MSNBC. However, I want to wend my way back to my original point: words change meaning, and therefore a single concept may well be represented by many different words over time. A Google search for "dole" brings up information about the fruit packing and shipping company; "the dole" brings us a little closer to our definition, but still presents many sites about the company. A Google search for "relief" doesn't get us anywhere near what definition was being invoked in the documents used by MSNBC (and PolitiFact).

In the US, the term "the dole" was never in common parlance, but "relief" was very prominent in use during World War II, dropping to parity with "welfare" during the Vietnam War. The meaning, therefore, of "relief" in 1940s America could well be used as a proxy for our current usage of "welfare".

(Furthermore, contrast this with the UK, where "the dole" did see increased use during and after World War II as well as during the Thatcher years (which was also when "relief" and "welfare" usage rates crossed over.)

In the end, PolitiFact's statement is true to the letter, but fails in fact. It is akin to saying that the Indian government doesn't want to censor contents on Facebook and Google, but merely that they want these companies to follow local laws that amount to censorship, but aren't actually called censorship. It is akin to saying that Pete Hoekstra's recent advertisement wasn't racist, because - although the ad used racially stereotypical imagery meant to heighten xenophobia against Asian people - neither Pete Hoekstra nor the ad director are members of a racist organization. It is akin to saying that there is no such thing as a "separation of Church and State" in the US Constitution - regardless of centuries of Supreme Court jurisprudence as well as national and international governmental policies - because the words "separation of Church and State" are themselves not in the US Constitution. In other words, it's a weak argument that I was disabused of thinking to be an honest argument when I was still in elementary school.

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