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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

The Richmond Fellowship: Executive Director

£66,192 per annum including car allowance of £5,700): The Richmond Fellowship:...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Recruitment Genius: Office Junior

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Site Agent

£22000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This traditional family company...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent