Errors & Omissions: The battle against 'iconic' continues, as does the defence of Gateshead


Evidently, this column needs to reopen its campaign against the empty vogue-word "iconic". Here is the opening sentence of an article about large-scale works of public art, published on Wednesday: "It started with The Angel of the North, Antony Gormley's iconic steel sculpture which looms over the A1 and put Gateshead on the map for the right reason."

When you start reading a feature and the 11th word is "iconic", things are looking bad. What would be lost here if "iconic" were omitted?

And what is all this about Gateshead being put on the map for the right reason? The implication is that Gateshead had previously been on the map for all the wrong reasons. That looks like a way of saying "Gateshead: what a dump!" without actually saying it. Why gratuitously insult a community of 200,000 potential readers?

Ooh la la! A strangely intrusive French word popped up, complete with accents, in a film review published on Thursday: "Portman's performance is courageous, capturing Nina's naïveté and ferocious ambition."

It is strange that "naïveté" is so widely used. There is a perfectly good English version of this word: naivety. No strange diacritical marks there, and it also reflects the way English-speakers actually pronounce the word. My dictionary dates "naivety" back to the 18th century, so it's not as if people haven't had plenty of time to notice it. Why not use it?

Central problem: While we are in France, here is a sentence from a news report, published the same day, about President Sarkozy's campaign to deport Roma people back to Romania. "The scene has been repeated scores of times across France in the last month as President Nicolas Sarkozy (himself the son of an eastern European immigrant) wages his unlikely war against one of Europe's most destitute, mysterious and problematic peoples."

If you want to see problematic people, tell a Hungarian, like President Sarkozy's father (or mine) that he comes from eastern Europe. Let me tell you that eastern Europe is the bandit country beyond the Carpathian mountains. Austria, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak lands are in central Europe, and don't you forget it.

Double trouble: Readers who have difficulty multiplying one by two were well catered for by last Saturday's report about the nuisance caused by urban gulls: "The national population is likely to be 'substantially over 100,000 pairs' or 200,000 individuals, according to the leading expert on urban gulls." Who, given a number of pairs of urban gulls, or anything else, needs to be told how many individuals there are?

Metaphor soup: A news story about the troubles of the British National Party, published last Saturday, included a farcical quotation. This is not an error or omission, but deserves to be noted as an example of extreme-right political thought: "The source said: 'We will fight this but the pressures are mounting. There is a sound of rats abandoning the ship and it does not look good for us to be doing our dirty washing in public.'" Indeed not. If you do your washing on the deck of a sinking ship, how will you get it dry?

Culture clash: Not many people worry much about Greek-Latin hybrid words. You certainly cannot purge the language of them – what would we do without, for instance, "television"?

But let us do without them when we can. This is from Mary Dejevsky's Notebook on Tuesday: "Monolingual reporters posted abroad receive an allowance for interpreting."

You need a word for "speaking only one language". Greek has "monoglot", which is ready and waiting to be employed. Let's stick with it.

Journalese: This was published last Saturday: "Passengers on a British Airways flight were told they were about to crash into the sea after an emergency message was played in error." Except in sloppily written news stories, "after" means "after", not "because" or "when".

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