Errors & Omissions: The spirit of a long-dead friar is unwittingly kept alive
Saturday 12 December 2009
Here is a pub quiz question. Who was François Leclerc du Tremblay (1577-1638), also known as Father Joseph?
He was the Capuchin friar who was the confidant of Cardinal Richelieu. His Eminence the Cardinal was the all-powerful minister who ruled France under Louis XIII. The story goes that people around the court compared the modest friar in his dull habit to his red-robed master and dubbed him the "grey eminence". Yes, you guessed it: Tremblay was the original éminence grise.
I cannot see that he had very much in common with the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, but the following appeared in an article on Wednesday about a controversial American film critic called Armond White: "Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, the éminence grise of American film criticism, first defended White in his blog, then retracted his defence."
An éminence grise is a person without an official position of power who runs things from behind the scenes by exercising influence on those in charge. Mr Ebert may be influential, which is no doubt all the writer meant to convey, but since his influence is exercised in public, and he has the official position to go with it, he does not qualify as an éminence grise.
Strange fruit: My esteemed colleague Johann Hari is the most urban person I know. For him, the world means the human race; wild nature disgusts and alarms him. So I was not surprised by a curious slip at the start of his essay, published on Tuesday, about the social significance of the internet.
"On the first day of the Noughties I sent my first email. I sent it from a different world – one in which spam was something my nan ate from a can [and] blackberries were fruit you picked from a tree."
I suspect that for him blackberries are a fruit you buy in a supermarket, packaged in a clean plastic box. No one who has actually picked blackberries would say that they grow on a tree. You might call the tangle of brambles a hedgerow, or even a bush, but never a tree.
Daft headline of the week: "Latest fatality takes Afghanistan death toll to 100." Having committed yourself to "death toll" as the object of the verb "takes", you have to find a synonym for "death" to be the subject. Step forward the slimy bureaucratic euphemism "fatality". And which fatality are we talking about? Why, the latest one, of course. Was there ever a duller opening to a headline than "Latest fatality"?
Mixed-up metaphor: "Were his story to get the Hollywood treatment, Matt Damon would be a shoe-in for the starring role," said the report of an interview with the chess player Magnus Carlsen, published on Tuesday. What can a shoe-in possibly be, you may ask.
The expression is actually "shoo-in". Its origins seem to lie on American racetracks early in the last century. If a race had been fixed, the horse that was going to win it was a shoo-in: it was going to be shooed past the winning post like some domestic beast being driven into an enclosure. Hence, a shoo-in is the certain and predestined winner of a contest.
That is the story, anyway. The moral: don't use a metaphorical expression if you don't know its literal meaning.
Grammar corner: Some English verbs indulge in a harmless eccentricity: they have two different forms of the past participle. The variant forms "strived" and "striven" were the subject of a lively debate in this column recently. Another such verb is "speed".
Hamish McRae, in his Wednesday essay on boom and bust in the Noughties, wrote: "The downturn, far from holding back the growth of these new giants [China and India], seems almost to have sped it up." I would have written "speeded it up".
It has to be confessed that my authoritative but ancient edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary recognises only "sped" as the past participle of "speed". So maybe "speeded" is a development of recent years. But I think it exists, and I think it is the right form when the verb is used transitively. Further, I think this distinction applies to the past tense as well. So, "He sped away", but "He speeded the message on its way".
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