Have you been following the latest post-lockdown guidelines? Even if you know what they all are, why should you? They are not rules or statutes. So why “guidelines”?

In 1785, the American surveyor Andrew Ellicott wrote to his wife that his brother Joseph was running “the guide Line for the choppers”, as his team hacked a straight path through the wilderness to complete the survey of the Mason-Dixon line, the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland. Thereafter, “guide-lines” directed operations in ballooning, tattooing, woodcutting and so forth, but did not acquire the modern meaning until the 1960s, when guidelines became sources of moral or spiritual advice.

To ask people to follow guidelines might, therefore, seem unusually paternalistic for a supposedly libertarian prime minister, but the good thing about guidelines is that, while you don’t have to bother enforcing them (as you do the law), you can still blame people for ignoring them.

“Guy” (as in “guy rope”) is from the same old French word (“guier”, latterly “guider”) as “guide”, and “to guy” also means “to ridicule” or make an ass of. Let us hope the British public are not being guyed by the guidelines.

Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus.

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