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The Guardian Weekly - 2021-06-11

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‘Vigilant’

Culture

Steven Poole’s

A year ago, UK citizens were told to ‘stay alert’ in case Covid-19 crept up on them from behind. We are now told we ought to be ‘vigilant’. What’s the difference? In Latin, vigil means awake, and vigilare to stay awake. So a vigil, in English since the 14th century, is a period of watchfulness and concentration, originally religious, but then potentially secular too. One who is ‘vigilant’ is both awake and concentrating, and so we have been given a more arduous duty than simply staying ‘alert’. Beware that in being vigilant you do not become a ‘vigilante’, the words being originally the same. As a Missouri newspaper of 1821 declared: ‘We hate what are called vigilant men; they are a set of suspicious, mean-spirited mortals, that dislike fun.’

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