A recent translation forum debate regarding the correct preposition to use in the names of government departments reached a consensus that, while ‘of’ is the most appropriate preposition for the more prestigious ministries, lesser government agencies with longer more descriptive names tend to be less resistant to the use of ‘for’. ‘Ministry of’ is thus the proper nomenclature for Health, Education or Defense, but ‘Department for the Environment, Housing and Planning’ sounds OK too.
While few countries around the world have graced their major offices of state with the title of ‘Ministry for’, the phraseology is certainly very common in translation and this suggests that some underlying change is in fact afoot. In the case of government agencies that opt to call themselves departments rather than ministries, the changeover from ‘of’ to ‘for’ is already quite advanced.
In 1992, in the UK, for example, the one-time Ministry and then Department of Education (in existence since the Second World War) was transformed into the Department for Education and, despite various infelicitous name changes since then, the ‘for’ has remained firmly in place.
A similar pattern emerges with other UK government departments. The Department of Transport swapped its ‘of’ for ‘for’ in 1997, and various other newfangled divisions of Her Majesty’s Government have been baptized likewise in recent years.
The purpose of this shift to ‘for’ is clear. ‘For’ connotes a caring agency rather than a grim bureaucracy and suggests the friendly encouragement of self-help rather than the doling out of benefits. For the same reason, the pompous- and—since George Orwell published 1984—somewhat sinister-sounding ‘ministry’ is being pushed out in favor of ‘department’ or ‘office’, both of which are words and concepts that voters will be familiar with from their own workplaces.
Even Orwell of course named his dystopian ministries the Ministry of Truth, the Ministry of Peace, the Ministry of Love. ‘For,’ in this context, would in fact sound even creepier. Perhaps we have good reason to be wary of ‘for’.
A quick Google search for “Ministry for Truth” shows that the name of the authoritarian institution in 1984 is in fact frequently misquoted this way. More interestingly still, this usually occurs in contexts that are themselves clearly using the term for propagandist purposes.
A Sky News podcast likens Antifa to Orwell’s Ministry for Truth (sic). The Daily Telegraph warns us that Orwell warned us of a coming ‘Ministry for Truth’. And, in a peculiar twist, the Guardian newspaper misquotes the Sun quoting Orwell’s dystopian novel correctly when accusing David Cameron’s government of operating a ‘Ministry of Truth’.
A left-wing blogger freely moves back and forth from ‘Ministry of Truth’ to ‘Ministry for Truth’ in a single post attacking Teresa May, and Time Out, in a review of a lefty gig, remarks that the University of London’s Senate House provided the architectural inspiration for Orwell’s ‘Ministry for Truth’.
Both extremes of the political spectrum would thus seem to agree that “Ministry for…” sounds far creepier than “Ministry of…” and yet this is precisely the terminology that is becoming fashionable and finding increasing favor in government circles these days.
A recently published science fiction novel about environmental catastrophe entitled The Ministry for the Future has won plaudits from Barack Obama and other liberal politicians. The imaginary international organization that gives the book its title is described as being ‘“charged with defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves” and is clearly intended to inspire our praise.
Herein, however, lies the problem with ‘for’. An organization that speaks or acts for groups of individuals who would otherwise be deprived of a voice can be seen as liberating in so far as it advocates for the rights of those who go unrepresented in modern democracies, but it could also be viewed as sinister in so far as it presumptuously arrogates to itself the right to speak for groups (such as animals or the unborn) who are a priori incapable of speech or opinion and, by extension, for other supposedly ‘silent majorities’ who do in fact have their own voice.
As the ideological diversity of the misquotations from Orwell cited above suggests, no one single party or political persuasion has a monopoly on this tendency. Activists on the left claim to speak for the workers or the planet, while those on the right stand up for the nation and the war dead.
‘For it is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country’, a long-dead poet once pronounced on behalf of heroes who had long since lost their right to voice their own point of view.
‘For’ is a preposition that has a long history of sweetening such subterfuge.