Errors & Omissions: Meanings come and go, but some things never change

A blurb published in yesterday's Arts and Books section displayed a rare example of a common type of confusion: "After a four-year break from film, the actress who emanates a misfit's primal energy is back."

The use of "emanate" as a synonym for "emit" is not absolutely unknown, but the Oxford English Dictionary classifies it as rare. Too rare to use, I would submit. The usual meaning of "emanate" is much closer to the word's Latin roots – to flow out. The primal energy emanates from the actress; the actress does not emanate the energy.

Such mistakes about the proper application of the right verb to the right grammatical object are quite common. "That'll learn you," a parent may say to child, meaning, "That'll teach you." And "comprise" is all over the place: writers frequently have the parts comprising the whole, or the whole "comprised of" the parts, when properly the whole comprises the parts. (Note, incidentally, that the whole comprises all the parts, not just some of them. Britain includes England and Scotland, but it comprises England, Scotland and Wales.)

Over the centuries, a verb can switch from one object to another. For example, the Oxford dictionary dates the present meaning of advertise – "to make publicly known by announcement in a journal, etc" – from 1750. The word's earliest meaning dates from 1490: "to call to the attention of (another); to notify, admonish". In the 15th century, then, you advertised people about a piece of information; these days you advertise the information to the people.

But "emanate" has not yet undergone such a shift. It would be a pity if it did, because no other word does the same job.

***

Stellar eclipse: "Star" is possibly the most devalued word in the language today. From "porn stars" to "reality TV stars", all kinds of sleazy nobodies have usurped the status that belongs to the greats of Hollywood, Broadway and the West End.

And now this, from Monday's arts pages: "Over five thousand women queued in the streets of Manhattan when the studio put out a call for open auditions for extras, in the hope of starring alongside the famous four." That was about the filming of Sex and the City 2.

Let us remind ourselves: a star is a performer whose name appears on the billboards above the title of the piece; a leading performer whose mere name attracts the public through the doors. In the case of Sex and the City, the stars are, obviously, the "famous four". Extras, by definition, are not stars.

***

Obscure masterpiece: And possibly the second most devalued word is "masterpiece", at least among people who write headlines. On Monday we reported that a painting hitherto thought to be the work of the 20th-century faker Hans van Meegeren has been reattributed to a 17th-century Dutch artist called Dirck van Baburen. Headline: "'Fake' painting revealed as Dutch masterpiece."

No, a masterpiece is a work whose outstanding merit hits the viewer straight in the eye. No painting that was long believed to be a forgery can credibly be called a masterpiece.

***

Burble: This is from a fashion feature published on Monday: "The trench coat is both democratic and timeless. It is also the sleekest way to stay dry this autumn." How many ways are there to stay dry? I can think of three: you could wear a raincoat; you could carry an umbrella; or you could stay indoors. Of these, the coat is, apparently, the sleekest. What can this possibly mean?

A trench coat is indeed a way to stay dry, and it is fair enough to want to describe it as "sleek". But to bundle those two ideas together in the phrase "the sleekest way to stay dry" is to topple into nonsense.

***

Homophone horror: Tuesday's coverage of the arrest of Roman Polanski included this: "This time the DA's office was more discrete, waiting until the last minute to forward an arrest warrant to the US Justice Department."

That should be "discreet". The two words are both derived from the Latin discernere, meaning to separate or distinguish. "Discreet" means showing fine discernment in speech and behaviour, especially knowing when to remain silent. "Discrete" is the opposite of "continuous" – clearly and sharply separated from other things.

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