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Word of the Week: ‘neutral’


We take a closer look at the words and phrases that are trending online and in the media. This week: ‘neutral.’

Online dictionary Merriam-Webster has published the list of new words and phrases that will make their way onto its hallowed pages. As well as ‘fatberg’ (“a large mass of fat and solid waste that collects in a sewer system”) and ‘fabulosity’ (“fabulous quality, state or nature” – we are familiar) is the neutral pronoun ‘they’.

And in Brexit news (yawn), Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn has made headlines for stating he’ll stay neutral in the case of a second referendum.

So, without further ado, it’s time to undertake a thoroughly impartial and balanced analysis of everyone’s favourite fence-sitting term, ‘neutral’.

What is the definition of ‘neutral’?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the adjective ‘neutral’ as: “not saying or doing anything that would encourage or help any of the groups involved in an argument or war”. Think Switzerland during World War Two, Jezza during Brexodus – or Speak’s policy on stocking both caffeinated and decaf coffee. 

Another definition refers to being ‘neutral’ as “having features or characteristics that are not easily noticed”. So, the opposite of ‘fabulosity’ then. 

And if you hark your minds back to year 8 chemistry, you’ll no doubt remember that ‘neutral’ points to “a chemical substance that is neither an acid or an alkali – and has a PH of about 7.” 

In its noun form, ‘neutral’ is described as “a state of no activity or development” and “the position of gears in a vehicle”. ‘Neutral’ also thrillingly denotes “a pale grey, beige colour”. 

Etymology of the word ‘neutral’

The term originally derives from the Latin ‘neuter’, which meant “neither one nor the other”. 

‘Neuter’ then came to be adopted in the practice of alchemy in the 1540s (a medieval form of chemistry and speculative philosophy) to define materials that “exhibited neither acid nor alkaline qualities”. 

Moving into the 16th century, etymology dictionaries indicate ‘neutral’ was used to reference: “the one who takes no part in a contest between others.” 

It then made its way into boxing terminology in the 1900s, with ‘neutral corners’ describing “the two corners of the ring not used between rounds by the fighters and their seconds.” And sure enough, that’s where you’ll find Mr Corbyn during a second referendum.

Roisin McCormack