Glossary: Look out, He's a Bit of a Personality

Article excerpt

KELVIN MacKENZIE's explanation that he was leaving BSkyB because of a "personality clash" moved only seven-eighths of the way towards absolute candour.

It's true that he didn't mess about with "spending more time with his family" (he has recently gone back to his wife after a separation) or with a wish "to broaden his horizons 1 " but "personality clash" is still a euphemism, actually a more decorous way of saying "I hate my boss's guts". To note of someone, with a rueful smile, that "he's a bit of a personality" is to send fair warning to most people that it may be time to cross the street.

MacKenzie was also engaging in a last flourish of territorial combat. To have a personality is pretty mundane - even the drabbest of us can manage that - but to be a personality is something quite different. MacKenzie may have lost the "this company ain't big enough for both of us" showdown, but he could still assert his own scale as he rode out of town, even hint that it may have been the winner who could not deal with the competition. The front-page coverage that has been given to his resignation rather proves his point.

As it happens, a "personality clash" is a peculiarly 20th-century notion, even if it has its roots in older usage. Personality first meant simply the condition of being a person rather than a thing. To debate the personality of God was not to wonder whether he was crabby at breakfast but to raise the theological matter of his existence as an identifiable Being.

From the late 18th century, "personality" is also used to mean the particular group of qualities that distinguish a person from all others. In fact, under this sense you don't even have to be a person to have a personality. Kelvin MacKenzie, for instance, gave the Sun a distinctive personality - boorish 2 , thuggishly witty, given to lachrymose tendencies where "kiddies" and "mums" were concerned. But personality remains indivisible, a fingerprint marking one person's separateness from another.

In this century the word has been appropriated by psychology and sociology to a subtly different end. Personality becomes a way of describing the object of study, a way of reducing the infinite variety of human character to a set of categories which can be measured and assessed with some exactitude. Spurious exactitude in many cases, but often plausible enough to escape unnoticed. It becomes possible to "diagnose personality" and to conduct "personality inventories", as if human nature consisted of a set of basic parts, variously selected and assembled. …