Errors & Omissions: Animals aren't human, much as we like to pretend otherwise
Saturday 03 April 2010
There is nothing wrong with a striking opening, but the attempt to grab the attention of the supposedly somnolent reader can become silly. Here is the opening of a news story published on Wednesday: "The common toad may be ugly, warty and squat, but it is blessed with an extraordinary gift. It has an uncanny ability to predict earthquakes several days before they occur."
The giveaway is the word "but". Would you seriously have a problem with the idea that an animal that looks ugly to us might have some perceptual ability that science cannot yet understand? Obviously not. The use of "but" makes sense only to a reader who, as in the story of the Frog Prince, sees the ugly toad as horrid and threatening, and is pleased and surprised to find that it has some admirable qualities. What is this story supposed to be about, zoology or fairy tales?
Verbiage: That wasn't the only trouble with anthropomorphised animals on Wednesday's news pages. Here is the opening of a picture caption: "Brown hares rear up on their hind legs and land blows on each other with their front paws in a boxing match with a difference."
Yes, there certainly is a difference. In your usual boxing match the combatants are muscular humans wearing padded leather gloves. In this one, as can be clearly seen in the picture, they are herbivorous mammals of the family Leporidae. Well spotted.
The "boxing match with a difference" recalls the kind of daft nature film, circa 1958, whose commentary called vultures "nature's garbage collectors" and could not observe a mouse threatened by a hawk without exclaiming: "Uh-oh, something seems to have spooked the little feller!"
"With a difference" is like "in style": you just bung it in when you can't think of anything else.
Type-cast: Monday's Life section greeted the coming televised election debates between the party leaders with a spread celebrating great debates of the past. They included the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, which laid the scene for the American Civil War by setting out the arguments over slavery and the rights of black people. The article reported: "Newspapers sent shorthand typists to take down every word." I think they were shorthand writers. The typewriter did not become common until later in the century – and in any case you wouldn't take one to a political meeting.
Unfair trade: A feature article on Tuesday told how a film-maker called Ross Ching made an unauthorised video for the song "Little Bribes" by Death Cab for Cutie, and put it on the internet. "Within days Ching was contacted by Atlantic records, Death Cab's label. They had no truck with his copyright infringement; in fact, they wanted to buy Ching's work and make it the official video."
The writer seems to think "had no truck with" means "had no quarrel with" or "no problem with". Not so. It means "had no dealings with" – which is pretty well the opposite of what was meant.
"Truck" as used here is a fine example of a fossil – a word that is obsolete except for its use in some particular idiom. It has nothing to do with "truck" meaning a wheeled vehicle for carrying heavy goods. The "truck" you do not have is derived from the French verb troquer, meaning to exchange or barter. So "no truck" means no trade.
The word pops up in one other familiar context: the Truck Acts, variously in force from the 18th century to the late 20th, which gave workers the right to be paid in cash rather than in tokens exchangeable for goods at a company store, the latter practice being open to gross abuses.
Out of place: A story on Thursday about protests that greeted a concert in London by the Jerusalem Quartet included this strange information: "The Quartet pointed out that only one of their four is now a native Israeli, with one living in Portugal and another in Berlin."
You are a native of the place where you were born, and that cannot change. I think the writer meant "a resident Israeli".
Daft headline of the week: "Russia fears return to wave of terrorism" appeared on a news page on Tuesday. You cannot return to a wave: it passes over and is gone. There may be a new wave of something, but you will be going forward in time to meet it, not returning to it.
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