Word Games: Gamble

There was a certain unity among the ladies and gentlemen of the press in their descriptions of George Osborne's Spending Review. It was, said voices from right and left, a "gamble". I love it when journalists all gather around a word like wasps in a jam jar, falling into its grasp because they see all their friends doing it.

I sometimes wonder if there's some high-level, behind-the-scenes arrangement, where the editors ring each other up and talk through the options ("Osborne's giant bellyflop, anyone?") or if one takes the plunge and the others follow suit, hoping the trendsetter knows more about economics than they do.

Anyway, gamble it is. Gambling makes me think of a cigar-wielding, sweaty man in a Las Vegas casino pushing all his chips on to the table and winking at the croupier before bankrupting himself. It doesn't really suit Osborne, somehow, whom I imagine was more of a Monopoly kind of kid, ordering his multicoloured notes into neat piles and refusing to lend anyone money ("it's against the rules") as he built hotels on Park Lane.

Also, while acknowledging the obvious potential of the odd bet to turn into a life-imploding addiction, gambling is often done for fun. The word descends from the Middle English gamenen which means to play, jest, be merry. Some etymologists think the "b" crept in when people confused it with gambolling - that is, the act of a springtime lamb frolicking in a field. But if gambling in its literal form was a combination of lamb-like innocence and jest, it is surely not even slightly appropriate to use within a five-mile radius of the beady-eyed Chancellor (whom I suspect only comes above ground from his abacus-lined dungeon to deliver news of economic woe).

Still, there he goes, gambling (in the sweaty-Las-Vegas sense) with our futures. If he wins big, he'll be hooked, feel invincible and crave his next fix. We'll also never hear the end of it. But if his gamble goes the way of most - one little flutter on the horses turns into a life spent in a betting shop weeping at a screen - we might wish we'd intervened and forced him into rehab.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman