Word Games: Quango

Probably the most unfortunate aspect of the word "quango" is the way it rhymes so perfectly with "tango". Quango is a word that begs to be taken seriously - and yet that's tricky when all you can think of is a fluorescent-orange drink or a sultry South American dance. Quango sounds fun and wacky. I want to use it in sentences like: "Let's all do the quango!" But it refers to a non-departmental public body. It's like the guy in HR dressing up in a Superman costume for the Christmas party: quango's meaning doesn't suit its verbiage.

The explanation for the discomfort is the usual sad story. Quango is a word born of an acronym - a shortening of "quasi- autonomous non-governmental organisation". You can see why that mouthful needed work, and yet the result is absurd; I'm sure it hasn't helped the quango's reputation (which, it hardly needs saying, is not good). It doesn't matter if we're talking about the Environment Agency, the Food Standards Agency or the Health Protection Agency: these important-sounding bodies seem to be universally loathed and seen as diamond-encrusted ships of waste and pointlessness.

But then there are some quangos whose names don't help their cause. The Committee on the Safety of Devices is one example - it sounds like it's straight out of an episode of The Thick of It. (Which devices? All devices? It's so mysterious.) Cotsod, as I hope it's known, has made it on to the hit list of 180 quangos to be culled by the government.

It will be, says David Cameron, the "bonfire of the quangos", a phrase firmly in the running for most overused political catchphrase of all time.
And that leads us to the final chapter in the quango's sorry tale. The bonfire reference harks back to "bonfires of the vanities" - the burning of books, artworks and other objects of sin, most notoriously by a Dominican priest in Florence in the 15th century. I'm not sure how the closure of the Human Tissue Authority is similar to Florentine religious book-burning but there it is: the future of the quango is not bright. The quangos, it seems, have been quangoed.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 18 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns Britain?