You've probably read quite a lot about students in recent weeks, what with the protests, and the way certain newspapers (hello, Daily Mail) can't get out of bed without publishing a bevy of pictures of beautiful girls wielding banners. They're everywhere, the students, except where that paper's readers would like them to be - at home, poring over their notes and playing with kittens.

This was my favourite item from the Mail's student rampage files, written in breathless horror: "Student militants have joined forces with French communists to picket England's secondary schools urging pupils as young as 15 to stage a walkout over university tuition fees."

Not the French communists! Middle England's mothers will be scared witless, imagining the Gauls lurking at the school gate, onions dangling round their necks, Gauloises smoke curling round their ears, whispering sweet anarchy into the ears of innocents. Children won't be allowed to leave the house in case they encounter some French philosophe, the spirit of revolution in his heart (and a predilection for young ladies in his mind).

Note, also, that students are no longer just students: they are student militants now. They are, in Mail World (an infinitely terrifying place), the new immigrants or benefit "scroungers" - all the same, all representing some kind of amorphous, hideous threat to national order and good manners.

It's interesting the way a word changes meaning when it's continuously in the news, as events batter it into the public consciousness. "Students" today doesn't mean what "students" meant a month ago. It's got a jagged edge to it now. For years, students were stereotyped as Countdown-watching, tea-drinking wasters. Now they're painted as wild-haired extremists, poisoning the brains of children.

Side note: what's the collective noun for students? An online suggestion, from a true wit, was a lethargy (not any more, buster!). It needs updating, clearly. A rout? A kettle? I've got it - a scare-the-pants-off-Nick-Clegg.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle