In the week when the UK’s healthcare system turns 70, there can only be one Word in the News. The NHS, the UK’s taxpayer-funded system that cares for the health of its citizens, mostly free of charge, was born (the verb seems appropriate) on 5 July 1948. Its gestation was a long one: the idea was formally proposed to and adopted by the Labour Party Conference in 1934; given impetus by the 1942 Beveridge Report; and eventually implemented by the post-war Labour government under its charismatic Minister for Health, Aneurin Bevan. While not immune from criticism and undergoing frequent crises of varying degrees of severity, the NHS is undeniably popular with UK citizens, and its 70th birthday has been greeted with an outpouring of appreciation, reminiscence and celebration.
Like the BBC, that other quintessentially British institution, the NHS is generally referred to by its initials. The full form the National Health Service is much less frequently used, occurring only 8,000 or so times in our corpus, as opposed to nearly 200,000 for the initialism. Unlike the BBC, which is often referred to as ‘the Beeb’ or sometimes ‘Aunty’, it does not have any affectionate nicknames, perhaps reflecting its status as what one politician referred to as ‘the closest thing the English people have to a religion’ (he was not being complimentary). It is not clear why he excluded the Scots, the Welsh and the people of Northern Ireland: the NHS exists in each part of the United Kingdom as an independent entity, and with its own name, but is referred to as the NHS in all of them. Danny Boyle’s exuberant celebration of the institution in the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony with its dancing nurses and giant hospital beds seems now to belong to a different era, but it undoubtedly captured something of the affection and regard in which the NHS is held by the millions it serves.