Errors & Omissions: Pay a visit to the Metaphor Museum – you might learn something
Saturday 01 May 2010
There is a new display at the Metaphor Museum. This admirable institution, familiar to readers of this column, houses a valuable collection of objects such as linchpins and mainstays which were once in everyday use but are now found only in metaphors.
The dedicated staff stage popular displays of activities such as battening down the hatches, changing horses in mid-stream and teaching grandmothers to suck eggs.
In the outdoor menagerie area the kiddies can meet bellwethers and stalking-horses. And now they can try their hands at a fascinating new activity – hawk-watching.
Matthew Norman wrote on Wednesday: "Labour's progressive forces must watch [Ed Balls] like hawks on the all-carrot diet."
It is commonly assumed that when we speak of watching someone like a hawk, it is the watcher who is being likened to a hawk. Hawks are, after all, noted for their keen eyesight. But those who have read T H White's extraordinary book The Goshawk may take a different view. White describes the process of "watching" a hawk. This is an old-fashioned method designed to break a new hawk to the will of its trainer. It is a contest in staying awake. The austringer must "watch" the hawk for many hours until the bird finally consents to go to sleep on the fist.
The point about watching a hawk, then, is not acuity of eyesight but unsleeping vigilance. And that is indeed the point we are making when we say that someone needs to be watched like a hawk.
Price of fame: It is a long time since the dread word "famous" has appeared in a headline in this newspaper. But there it was on Monday: "Famous matador gored in bullring". Let's say it once more: "famous" is always a lie. If the person really is famous you don't need to say so. Nobody ever calls David Beckham famous. The matador Jose Tomas may be famous in Spain and Mexico, but in this country hardly anybody has heard of him.
Mea culpa: On Monday I deserted pedantry for an excursion into proper journalism. I contributed a piece to our election coverage. In it I wrote that "Lynne Featherstone, MP for Hornsey and Wood Green" is defending the Liberal Democrat majority she won last time.
Well, Lynne Featherstone is indeed standing for the Lib Dems, and until the dissolution of Parliament she was the MP for Hornsey and Wood Green. But she is not an MP now: nobody is, because there is no parliament.
Cliché of the week: A news story on Wednesday began like this: "The family of one of the victims of the 7 July terrorist attacks on London had to wait for almost two weeks before being told that their loved one had been killed in the bombings." Not everybody is loved by their relations. Did we take any steps to verify that this person was? Of course not.
Evelyn Waugh called his 1948 satirical novel The Loved One. The phrase, for him, summed up the sickening sentimentality of the American funeral business. Now, 62 years later, it is just verbiage.
Journalese: Here is how a news story on Tuesday ought to have started: "The manager of an expensive jewellery store denied yesterday that a £40m armed robbery on his premises was an 'inside job'." We actually published this: "The manager of an exclusive jewellery store yesterday denied that a £40m armed robbery on his premises was an 'inside job'."
Two journalese habits have crept in here. First, "yesterday" is in front of the verb. This happens only in newspapers. No one in real life ever said, "We last night went to the cinema."
The other change is more serious. The word "exclusive" ought to be banned in this sort of context. First, it is a euphemism. Pudeur about money prevents us saying "expensive", though that is what we really mean. Second, it makes no sense. An "exclusive" shop must be excluding somebody. Whom? People who cannot afford the goods, of course. But every shop does that.
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