Aardvark, Dr Johnson and the idea of an adult safeguarding ‘dictionary’
I was talking recently to Phillip, a colleague from the National Safeguarding Adults Network (SANN). We were continuing a conversation about safeguarding adult language. Well, more thinking about terminology … and how being clearly understood across safeguarding partnerships can at times be a challenge. How important ideas can sometimes get lost in translation. To coin a line from Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s Stairway to Heaven, words can have two meanings.
I said ‘we almost need something that would set out the definition of the words we need … a dictionary to support us … but we would have to do better than Blackadder in that episode with Dr Johnson’ (Ink and Incapability, Blackadder the Third Series 3 Episode 2). This set us off laughing.
In this episode, Dr Samuel Johnson presents his manuscript to Prince George, asking for his patronage, saying it ‘contains every word in our beloved language’, a feat which has taken him 10 years. Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) ask if he can ‘offer the Doctor my most enthusiastic contrafribularities’. A look of shock comes over Dr Johnson’s face (Robbie Coltrane). ‘Damn!’ he says, as he adds the word to his book. Later, when it appears that Baldrick has used the only copy of the dictionary to start a fire, Blackadder must work through the night to rewrite the manuscript, only to get stuck on the definition for ‘aardvark’.
Many different areas of practice, including adult safeguarding, require clear, concise communication, using words and phrases which are understood or have a degree of shared understanding. The introduction of the Care Act has seen a shift in the language of adult safeguarding. In fact, the phrase ‘vulnerable adult’ is not used in the current statutory guidance. The definition of vulnerable adult is found in the 1997 Consultation Document Who Decides? In 2000 the government published No Secrets, guidance for developing and implementing multi-agency policies and procedures to protect vulnerable adults from abuse.
The Care Act has moved away from ‘vulnerable adults’ to ‘adults at risk of harm’, usually shortened to ‘adults at risk’ in policies and procedures. We now have to understand phases like ‘adult with a care and support need’.
Take the word ‘safeguarding’ itself. Do we have a shared agreed sense of what this means? For me, safeguarding means to work with an individual to protect their right to live their life in safety, free from abuse, harm and neglect. I am sure this is widely agreed upon, but no doubt differences remain and this is not just among staff having responsibility to spot abuse and do something about it, but across the wider community as a whole.
For some time now, Norfolk has been trying to change the language of our safeguarding conversations. This is to better reflect the Care Act and in an effort to develop a shared vocabulary across the partnership, so we all are starting from the same place. For example, we use the word concern – ‘raising an adult safeguarding concern’ – rather than ‘making a referral’. There will be lots of reasons why a colleague may use the word ‘referral’. It could be habit, what they are familiar with, or shorthand. Making a ‘referral’ may be perceived to express a sense of importance, urgency, or a concrete action that has been taken. For example, our Norfolk safeguarding GP, speaking from a medical perspective, shared the following reflection from a colleague of how the word may interpreted:
Making a referral creates the expectation that:
a) the issue has been passed to someone else and
b) something will happen as a result
The word vulnerable is really interesting and continues to be used. It can convey a complex set of circumstances for a person, which may include being a victim of abuse and harm or at increased risk of being a victim. Without even trying I am using another word – risk – to describe vulnerability. If we use words that directly link to the Care Act, this better represents the safeguarding process. We can all benefit of this.
There are already definitions for the words used in adult safeguarding in a number of documents, from a number of organisations and professional bodies. But as we become more confident in our adult safeguarding practice, is it now time to develop a universally shared safeguarding adult dictionary?
During their latest round of meetings in June and July, Norfolk Safeguarding Adults Board’s local partnerships considered the language of safeguarding.
Each person at the meeting was asked to write down as many words as they could think of in two minutes, which they use when talking about adult safeguarding. These lists were then turned into word clouds (also known as text clouds or tag clouds). The more times a specific word appears from the lists, the bigger and bolder it appears in the word cloud.
What was really interesting about this exercise was not just which words were big, but also which words were missing from the word cloud.
If you would like to join me and Philip as we continue exploring the idea of an adult safeguarding dictionary, please get in touch. Or if you would like to suggest a word or definition to be included. I don’t think we will need to include aardvark or sausage (watch the Blackadder episode to the end to understand this reference! Ink and Incapability, Blackadder the Third)
NSAB Board Manager
Tuesday 03 August 2021