Errors & Omissions: Those magnificent aviatrixes in their flying machines


Aviation is a cheerful cooked-up Latin word formed from avis, meaning "bird". Astonishingly, the Shorter Oxford dates "aviation" back to 1887, when it presumably referred to gliders, or the mere idea of trying to fly like a bird.

It was not until 1891 that the great German pioneer Otto Lilienthal began his glider experiments, which inaugurated the era of heavier-than-air flight. They ended with his fatal crash in 1896, but his results inspired the Wright brothers.

That aero-etymological excursus was occasioned by an obituary we carried on Monday. Betty Skelton was an American who found celebrity as a stunt-flier in the 1940s. The article variously called her an aviator and an aviatrix. This, of course, is more of the same cooked-up Latin, meaning one who flies like a bird. "Aviator" is the masculine form, "aviatrix" the feminine.

Now, feminine job designations are quite out of fashion. "Sculptress", "usherette" and the rest seem embarrassingly out of date. Radicals are even trying to stamp out "actress", but it seems to be surviving. There is a good reason: actors and actresses are not interchangeable. Unless you are putting on a wildly experimental production, you will need an actor to play Romeo and an actress for Juliet.

The same argument, of course, applies to singing. While there is no word "singeress" the wide currency of such terms as "chanteuse" and "diva" testifies to the need for a word meaning a female singer. As for "aviatrix", I'm all for it. Its jaunty absurdity fits well with the daredevil antics of plucky girl pilots of yesteryear like Betty Skelton.

Cross-channel contretemps: David Bell writes in about this sentence: "Bois des Moutiers, as its name suggests, stands above the tall chalk cliffs of upper Normandy, just west of Dieppe." That is from a feature article published last Saturday. Bois des Moutiers is a house designed by Edwin Lutyens; its future is uncertain.

Moutier, the big Harrap dictionary informs me, is an archaic French word meaning "monastery". So Bois des Moutiers means "Monastery Wood". Mr Bell, not unreasonably, asks how the name is supposed to "suggest" tall chalk cliffs. The answer is that it isn't. Mr Bell has fallen victim to one of the perils of that venerable journalistic device the "drop intro", otherwise known as the "slow burn".

The sentence I have quoted is the opening of the fourth paragraph. The preceding three paint a lush picture of this quintessentially English house, its pebble-dash walls and mullioned windows, its furniture by William Morris and "breathtakingly beautiful" grounds by Gertrude Jekyll which "flow down to white cliffs and the English Channel. Or rather, La Manche. For these white cliffs face north, not south.

"Bois des Moutiers, as its name suggests, stands above the tall chalk cliffs of upper Normandy..."

A nice effect, is it not? What the name, being French, "suggests" is merely that the house is in France, a fact hitherto unsuspected by the reader. Or rather, unfortunately, known all along by the reader. A slow-burn opening always sets a problem for the headline writer: how not to give the game away. In this case nobody seems even to have tried. The headline reads "Lost in France: the Lutyens jewel that nobody wants". And right underneath, for good measure, is a map showing the location of the house on the Normandy coast.

So the slow burn goes for nothing, and Mr Bell was probably not alone in being puzzled by a brutally nullified rhetorical effect.

Blond beast? Another French oddity turned up on Monday. The heading on a profile of Boris Johnson was "Cameron's bête blond". Good headline in a way. The piece argued that Johnson was Cameron's bête noire, and he is famously blond – so "bête blond". Nothing wrong with that – except that it is mangled French: bête is feminine, so it ought to be "bête blonde". But Boris is definitely not a blonde, so that wouldn't work. Call it an Anglo-French pun, then, and I suppose you can get away with it. But I always mistrust effects that work better for the ignorant reader than the erudite.

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