Whose benefit?

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We appear to be in danger of completely losing what I consider to be a useful distinction between two phrases, one of which seems to be disappearing.
Earlier this year, a cyclist, Charlie Alliston, riding an illegal bicycle (it had no rear-wheel brake) knocked over a pedestrian, Kim Briggs. Blaming her for the accident, he tweeted “Hopefully it is a lesson learned on her behalf.” When Ms Briggs later died, Mr Alliston withdrew the tweet. Leaving aside any legal question, my interest is in the meaning of the tweet. My understanding of “a lesson learned on her behalf” is that someone else learned the lesson for the benefit of Ms Briggs. The entry for “behalf” in the online version of the OED has not been fully updated since 1887, when it was originally published, but example sentences given from the 18th and 19th centuries (obviously the most recent available at the time) confirm my interpretation. Equally clearly, however, Mr Alliston intended the meaning “a lesson learned on her part”, i.e. by Ms Briggs herself, and the fact that Mr Alliston withdrew the tweet after her death seems to imply this. He may just have made a mistake in the heat of the moment.
However, since then I have heard other, supposedly well-educated people also use the expression “on behalf of” or “on X’s behalf” in the same way. For instance, Emma Dabiri, the social historian partnering Bendor Grosvenor in the second series of BBC’s “Britain’s Lost Masterpieces”, said, in programme 3: “Lely took time out in 1656 to pay a visit to Charles junior [i.e. the future Charles II], then in exile in the Netherlands. It was a shrewd move on Lely’s behalf.” (listen from about 32 minutes 50 secs). Clearly the meaning here is “on Lely’s part”.
Consider these two sentences:
1) This needs careful team work on the part of the singers.
2) This needs careful team work on behalf of the singers.
Sentence 1 means that the singers need to work carefully together in order to benefit themselves. Sentence 2, on the other hand, means that some other group needs to work carefully together in order for the singers to benefit. What a shame if we introduce ambiguity into the language by losing the first of these expressions.

One Comment

  1. Thank you for this. Misuse that leads to misunderstanding truly is a shame. We have a rich language that allows for nuanced communication. If I read a sentence, such as 2) and take the words for what they mean, it only leads to confusion down the road.

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