Errors & Omissions: A farcical fate for one of Shakespeare's comic creations


Let us set the scene for a tragedy – if not a horror story.

On Wednesday we published a review of Peter Hall's new production of Twelfth Night. It was illustrated by a picture of three actors: in the foreground two gorgeously dressed principals, a bearded man and a young woman disguised as a boy; in the background a dimly seen male figure carrying what appears to be a drum or tambourine. The caption: "Rebecca Hall as Viola and David Ryall as Fester."

"Fester" should be Feste, the clown, as anybody familiar with this play – not an obscure one – will know. And for those who don't, the review below mentions the character by name, spelling it right. In this picture Feste must be the shadowy figure in the background.

So who is the bearded chap in the red and gold silk get-up? Again the review provides the clue, informing us that Orsino, the male lead, is played by Marton Csokas. Sure enough, that's him in the picture, exchanging lines with the lovely Miss Hall. Csokas may not be quite a household name, but his filmography includes such works as The Fellowship of the Ring, The Bourne Supremacy and Kingdom of Heaven.

It seems that whoever wrote this disastrous caption hasn't been paying attention in the cinema recently, doesn't know Twelfth Night, hasn't read the review and hasn't looked at the picture.

Elusive quarry: Last Saturday this appeared in a news story about the beatification of Pope John Paul II: "The ceremony in St Peter's Square marking the last step before sainthood is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people, harkening back to the funeral of the charismatic pope in 2005."

That would normally be "harking back". "Harken", according to my dictionary, is an American variant spelling of "hearken".

"Hark" and "hearken" are versions of the same Old English word. Both are nearly obsolete, surviving only in a few fossilised phrases such as "hark back" and familiar bits of poetry such as "Hark! The herald angels sing".

The root meaning of both words is listen or pay attention. "Hark", in addition, means a cry of warning or encouragement to hounds in the hunting field. To hark back, presumably, is to recall the hounds to the huntsman, or perhaps to call them to search the ground again. That would make sense as a metaphor for reviving a remembered experience, but I am speculating.

Poor marks: "Approve or disapprove, this policy marks the end of the NHS," said the headline on the front of Tuesday's Viewspaper. "Marks" has been gaining ground recently, at the expense of "means" – and at the expense of clear imagery.

When we say, as it might be, "This ceremony marks the end of the war", we mean something like making a mark on a sea wall to show how high the tide has risen. To mark an event is to record it, or to take notice of it, as in "Mark my words". The policy is not marking the end of the NHS. On the contrary, it is causing it. That is what the writer is struggling to say. For a correct use of "mark", see the item above.

Verbiage: On Monday a news story reported about a soldier who was putting his Military Cross up for sale on eBay. He had been "awarded the prestigious honour" for service in Afghanistan.

"Prestigious" had a vogue about five years ago, but I thought we had got rid of it. No such luck. So, let's apply the drivel test. Is it conceivable that the writer could possibly have said the opposite?

"He was awarded the ignominious honour." No, that doesn't work at all, So, "prestigious" is not really saying anything. It never does. Strike it out.

Mixed metaphor of the week: A leading article on Wednesday, commenting on the Chilcot inquiry, spoke of Tony Blair's "supine stance before a US president intent on invasion". A stance is a place to stand, or a manner of standing. "Supine" means lying on your back. Even for Mr Blair, a supine stance would be too much of a contortion.

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