ONE OBVIOUS reason put forward for the bombing campaign against President Milosevic - the only good one, when you come to think of it - was that it might relieve the plight of the civilians on the ground, though there were always those who doubted this. Anyway, a Times leader described that plight as "abominable"; and I suppose it was as good a word as any for what has been happening to the people of Kosovo.

The more usual word for such situations is "unspeakable", which is certainly apt for talking about things so disgusting that to describe them is beyond the powers of speech. But we have read of so many unspeakable atrocities and unspeakable horrors that these phrases have taken on a perfunctory look.

Abominable has not been so often on people's lips. It has an old-fashioned feel, which may have been why the Times's leader writer chose it, since that paper likes, every now and then, to adopt an old-bufferish pose. I'm pretty sure it was one of those words that Kipling and his schoolmates would often have used when they were at the United Services College, at least in its adverbial form. Can't one hear them telling each other that someone was abominably rude, and that someone else was abominably late for prayers? Indeed, abominably still crops up in this role today, though only, I'd imagine, among the over-fifties. There's something a bit too pompous about it for ordinary conversation.

But that is to its advantage. It can be kept for heavy duty. It retains a fine Biblical ring. In the Authorised Version, any act or person that is classified as particularly wicked is described as an abomination unto the Lord. It was a word designed to cause the utmost disgust. When St John the Divine, getting into his stride, called Babylon "the mother of harlots and abominations" (bdelugmata in Greek), his readers would have known that this time he wasn't joking.

Aside from these literary echoes, I think it must be partly the dark sound it makes that has kept it going. For some centuries there was even some doubt about how to spell it. Nearly everyone, including Shakespeare's printer, used to put an "h" in it, making it "abhominable". This was because they thought it derived from ab homine, meaning inhuman, although they must have known of the perfectly good word abominari, as found in the best Latin writers, which meant "to deprecate as an ill omen", then, more generally, "to loathe", still carrying with it some distinct undertones of superstitious dread.

Or perhaps some people muddled it in their minds with another word, abhorrent, which does have a quite legitimate "h", but comes from a different stem entirely, though also to do with dread. Horrere meant to tremble with fear and abhorrere to shrink back, but it wasn't nearly such a strong word as abominari.

Talking of strong words, I see that on the morning after the bombing started two of the tabloids, the Mail and the Express, had exactly the same splash headline ("Onslaught"). It was in the Guardian's headline too. That's the Zeitgeist for you.

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