Errors & Omissions: Iconic smoking gun and other crimes against the English language

 

The other day somebody said "dichotomy" and I was transported back half a century. You hardly ever hear that word nowadays, but back in the Sixties everything seemed to be a dichotomy. Words go in and out of fashion like anything else.

May we hope that the irritating "iconic" is at its apogee, and will soon decline? Peter Jefferson Smith has written in to draw attention to a piece published last Saturday about the long campaign waged by climate change contrarians to discredit the "hockey stick" graph of global temperatures. The article said at one point that the hockey stick had "become the iconic smoking gun for both sides of the debate".

An icon is an object of veneration, or just an easily recognisable image; a smoking gun is incontrovertible proof that a crime has been committed. I don't think the hockey stick is much like either of them.

While we are poking about in the property basket of dusty old metaphors, may I suggest that perhaps the hockey stick that became a smoking gun is not so much an icon as a shibboleth (a sign that shows which side you are on), or even an oriflamme (a sacred banner held aloft in battle)? You don't hear too much about either of them these days.

And by the way, since you ask, no, I don't think climate change contrarians have a right to demand that the media call them sceptics. A sceptic approaches a question with an open mind and accords belief in proportion to the weight of the evidence. The people who have done that are the climate scientists. The contrarians, by contrast, move heaven and earth to discredit the evidence, so as to maintain a preconceived view.

Cliché of the week: The Costa Concordia, like every other ship involved in an accident, was widely reported to be a "stricken vessel". This phrase is not only a cliché but a fossil as well. Nothing is ever stricken except a vessel, and a ship or boat is rarely called a vessel unless it is stricken.

Firing squad: "Former drug addict wins prestigious poetry prize" – news headline published on Tuesday. You mean as opposed to a banal, dull or shameful prize?

All prizes confer prestige – that is what they are for. "Prestigious" is one of those words that can generally be taken out and shot with a minimum of ceremony.

Not too good: Another message comes from Bob Lowrie, who draws attention to the following sentence, from a leading article published on Thursday: "What publican does not believe that there would be more of a buzz in the bar if the price gap between a pint drawn there and one carted home from the supermarket were not much narrower than it is?"

The writer set out to say that all publicans believe that they would do more business if the price gap between drinks in a bar and drinks bought in a supermarket were narrower. The statement was turned into a rhetorical question and the word "not" was put in at two places. The result is that the sentence ends up saying the opposite of what was intended. It is just too long and involved; any sentence of more than 25 words with more than one "not" in it is a hostage to fortune.

Desperate plea: Last Saturday on this page, no less a stylist than Robert Fisk wrote: "Nicolas Sarkozy has many times beseeched Netanyahu to get rid of him." "Beseeched" is recognised by dictionaries, but those who treasure irregular verbs will be sad to think that "besought" is beyond help.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Client IT Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client IT Account Manager is ...

Ashdown Group: Management Accountant / Analyst (CIMA finalist/newly qualified)

£32000 - £38000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant / F...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - .NET

£27000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of a mark...

Recruitment Genius: Help Desk Specialist

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides Reliabili...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor