Sugar-tax goes sour: why does the word ‘nanny’ terrify Tories?

·1 min read

Are we living in a “nanny state”? Many apoplectic rightwingers think so: the Spectator laments the metamorphosis of “nanny Boris”, while the Daily Mail reported “fury” at “nanny-state meddling” after Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy recommended a sugar tax. But what is so terrifying about nannies?

Since the late 18th century, “nanny” has been the word for someone (usually a woman) engaged by parents to look after their children. (“Nanny” was a common pet name for people called Anne or Agnes.) The term “nanny state”, a childish complaint that one is being treated like a child, is usually attributed to the Conservative MP Iain Macleod in 1965: it became popular with Tories in the 1980s as an alternative to “welfare state”, since welfare sounds too much like a good thing.

Related: Boris Johnson appears to rule out sugar and salt tax to tackle junk food reliance

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation of the phrase, however, is from a Texas newspaper in 1952, which slyly claimed: “Britons are turning Britain itself into a nanny-state, perhaps out of long habit in persuading or coercing natives to do what is good for them.” It surely follows that if we think the empire was a splendid thing, we should do what nanny says.

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

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