Category Archives: lexicography

The different meanings of ‘Unionist’

English Dictionaries
English Dictionaries by John Keogh, on Flickr.

Less than ten years ago, the Collins English Dictionary listed only the following senses of the word ‘Unionist’ (with a capital letter):

  • (before 1920) a supporter of the union of all Ireland and Great Britain
  • (since 1920) a supporter of union between Britain and Northern Ireland
  • a supporter of the US federal Union, esp during the Civil War

It listed two further senses in lower-case:

  • a supporter or advocate of unionism or union
  • a member of a trade union

It's therefore clear that if Jim Murphy could travel ten years back in time, his claim not be a Unionist ("I’ve never been a Unionist – it’s not my political tradition. As a family of Irish Catholic immigrants, we’re not Unionists. I grew up in a family of trade unionists but not political unionists.") would have been unremarkable and trivially true.

However, at some point during the past ten years, this word has been redefined, at least in Scotland. When did this happen?

I personally used it for the first time in a blog post on 1st May 2007: "Today is the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union between England (with Wales) and Scotland. If it’s such a great thing as the unionist parties proclaim, surely they should be out there celebrating it."

Here are the first uses for three of the main pro-independence blogs:

  • Bella Caledonia: 14th October 2008 ("At the last Scottish elections arch unionist dinosaurs like John Reid and George Foulkes were rolled out ...")
  • 9th March 2010 ("a Unionist reaction to the ‘National Conversation’ launched by the new SNP government ...")
  • Wings over Scotland: 7th April 2011 ("... the three Unionist parties ...")

This wasn't very conclusive. I then got the idea to Google for a narrow search term ("three unionist parties"), employing the option to look only at the results between two dates.

In 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006, all the results were clearly Irish (e.g., "In an upstairs room the United Unionist Alliance was having a meeting, and the leaders of the three Unionist Parties -- the Official Unionist, the Vanguard Unionist, and the Protestant Unionist, and members of the loyal Orders were present").

2007 returned three results. Two of them are wrongly dated, but one of them links to a comment made by Doug the Dug under an article in The Guardian on 15th April 2007: "All the main three unionist parties can do is argue about who can divvy up the Westminster block grant the best. The SNP have a vision for the future and offer an alternative to the dead hand of the Union and a restoration of pride in Scotland. "

Of course, if anybody has a lot of time on their hands, it might be interesting to look at the word "Unionist" rather than "three Unionist parties" during 2006 and 2007 to establish when exactly this usage became common.

However, it seems to be almost unknown before 2007, and it doesn't seem to have been widely used for another couple of years. Of course, 2007 was the year when the SNP became the largest party in Holyrood for the first time, and it was the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union, so it would have been a natural starting point for assigning a new meaning to the word "Unionist".

The publicly available text corpora, such as Google's Ngram Viewer, unfortunately don't cover the last few years well, so we'll have to wait a few years before we can firmly document the emergence of the new sense of "Unionist". However, my gut feeling is that it became the default meaning of the word in Scotland during the independence referendum.

If Jim Murphy hasn't sussed the recent change in semantics, one might suspect that he didn't pay all that much attention to the referendum, apart from his own travelling crate show. Otherwise, he should have realised that his mental dictionary is out of date.

Close your eyes and think of England!

bunting as far as the eye can see...
bunting as far as the eye can see... by Scorpions and Centaurs, on Flickr.
It's become customary for Better Together supporters to prefix their attempts at talking down Scotland with the words "I'm a patriotic Scot, but ..." or similar. (It's always followed by an example of how they believe Scotland is either too wee, too poor or too stupid so survive in the real world.)

This use of patriotic (a word that independence supporters rarely use) is straightforward enough -- they want to ensure that people don't think they're doing this because they don't feel Scottish.

However, today the Scottish Office (which at least on Twitter ought to change its name to the Better Together Propaganda Office) tweeted this:

This seems to imply that voting No is a patriotic duty, that voting Yes is a temptation that must be resisted. It smacks of "Close your eyes and think of England" and "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori".

It's an interesting change of semantics. Whereas the way patriotic is normally used by No campaigners clearly refers to Scotland, this seems to say that people have a duty to the United Kingdom, and that it would be an unforgivable folly to vote Yes to independence.

This tweet seems to be condensed version of this quote by Alistair Carmichael: "Being passionate about independence does not make you more Scottish. It does not mean you are the only ones that care about Scotland’s future. People who care are asking questions about our pensions and the Pound and if they do not get convincing answers then the patriotic decision will be to reject the idea of Scotland leaving the UK."

In the longer version, patriotic seems to have its usual meaning (although the logic is somewhat flawed).

So what happened? Is the Scottish Office on a mission here, or are they just bad at condensing statements down to 140 characters? It will be interesting to study the use of patriotic by Better Together for the remainder of the campaign.

New word needed: Englandic

Two Flags (2012), by Miss GG
Two Flags (2012), by Miss GG by Katy Stoddard, on Flickr.

Andrew Lilico has written a piece on Conservative Home about his confused sense of identity and about his independence angst:

I am a Scots Briton from New Zealand. [...] When I came to live in Britain as a boy, I was not eligible for a British passport (though I have one now), as my family had been in New Zealand for many generations, but there was no doubt that I was British and that this was the Mother Country. [...]

I was raised in Chester, near Wales not Scotland, but as a Scots Briton from New Zealand that seemed no less natural a way to “return to the Mother Country” than living anywhere else in Britain. I have never thought of myself as “English”. To me “English” has always been a racial designation, and the English a tribe [...]

If Scotland were to become independent, who would I be? [...] As a Scots Briton born in New Zealand who happens to live in England-and-Wales (Northern Ireland would presumably depart to join Scotland in due course), why would I think of myself as English, then, any more than, say, European?

Mr Lilico seems to be using 'English' and 'Scottish' as ethnic labels, in the same way as Americans use European ethnonyms to describe their ancestry even if they haven't left the US for generations. In other words, 'British' is used to denote the citizenship, and this can then be further qualified (e.g., 'Scots British', 'English British', 'Asian British' or 'Black British'). I presume he would not approve of somebody describing themselves as 'Italian Scottish' or 'Pakistani Scottish'.

However, this is not how 'Scottish' is used in Scotland today. For instance, Ruth Wishart recently defined a Scot as follows:

A Scot is someone born here, and anyone who has paid us the compliment of settling here.

In other words, 'Scottish' is now used in Scotland in a similar way to how 'British' is used in England (or at least in London), and people do indeed happily describe themselves as 'Italian Scottish' or 'Pakistani Scottish'.

(My beloved wife has a theory that the definition of 'Scottish' changed with the influx of the West Coast Italians after World War I, because so many Glaswegians spent their holidays there, and this made them become part of the Scottish family.)

The distinction many people from England make between 'British' and 'English' reminds me of the distinction in Russian between российский and русский (both normally glossed as "Russian"). The word "российский" rossíjskij means belonging to Russia, as a citizen or resident regardless of ethnicity, while the word "русский" rússkij describes ethnic East Slavic Russians only, but not other ethnic groups in Russia.

I wonder what England will do once Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all left the UK (as I'm sure will happen once Scotland has taken the first step). Will they still call their country (South) Britain to allow themselves to preserve the distinction between 'British' and 'English'? Or will they need to coin a new word to cover a citizen of England who isn't ethnically English (e.g., 'Englandic')?

I don't think anybody in Scotland feels a great need to introduce the word 'Scotlandic' to express this difference. Scotland has always been a country of emigrants and immigrants -- a multilingual, multiethnic and multireligious place. A Scot is indeed someone born here, and anyone who has paid us the compliment of settling here.

Addendum (12/04/14): Some rather interesting maps have been published by BBC News, which I think confirm what I wrote here.

The two meanings of ‘British’

Nationalists and Unionists have been having a curious little spat for the last couple of days. I think it started with Ed Miliband claiming that Scots will no longer be British if their country votes to leave the United Kingdom. Nationalists were quick to reply that given that Scotland is geographically a part of Great Britain, Scots will always be British, no matter which state they're living in.

I do believe it's a bit of a silly fight to get into.

It's a matter of fact that the word British has at least two meanings in modern English:

  1. relating to, denoting, or characteristic of Great Britain [where Great Britain can then mean either just the island or include also the small adjacent islands such as Skye and the Isle of Wight] -- parallel to the modern use of Scandinavian
  2. relating to, denoting, or characteristic of the United Kingdom -- parallel to the occasional use of Scandinavian to refer to people from the short-lived Kingdom of Sweden and Norway

The second meaning is probably more frequent than the first for the simple reason that there isn't any other convenient adjective describing somebody from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and it's obviously this meaning that Ed Miliband was referring to. However, the first meaning seems more primary, and of course you can't tell people in Scotland that they suddenly aren't allowed to use this sense of the word.

I guess it's related to the question of what the rUK will be called after Scottish Independence:

  1. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? It's really not a good name when one half of Great Britain has just left.
  2. The United Kingdom of England and Northern Ireland? Although Wales was part of England prior to the formation of the Kingdom of Great Britain, I doubt they'd accept this.
  3. The United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland? I'd say this is the most likely result.

However, which adjective will people use to refer to somebody or something from The United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland? Although it will annoy the Northern Irish and the Scots in equal measure, I have a feeling many English people will continue to use British. I mean, what's the alternative? Engwalnish?