Errors & Omissions: A plural question that Disney answers better than Tolkien


The television listings in last week's Information section carried a paragraph that began: "Dwarfs are the new Gypsies, it seems, the minority that is set to become TV flavour of the season." The heading above said: "Seven Dwarves". Dwarfs or Dwarves? English usage is changing, and here is why.

In a foreword to The Hobbit, published in 1937, J R R Tolkien writes: "In English, the only correct plural of 'dwarf' is 'dwarfs' and the adjective is 'dwarfish'. In this story 'dwarves' and 'dwarvish' are used, but only when speaking of the ancient people to whom Thorin Oakenshield and his companions belonged."

In appendix F to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien gives a further explanation: "But in the Third Age something of their old character and power is still glimpsed... these are the descendants of the Naugrim of the Elder Days... in whose hands still lives the skill in work of stone that none have surpassed. It is to mark this that I have ventured to use the form 'dwarves', and remove them a little, perhaps, from the sillier tales of these latter days."

So, "dwarves" was coined by Tolkien about 80 years ago to give his dwarves a dignity that dwarfs could hardly attain. So successful have his stories been that "dwarves" seems to be superseding "dwarfs" as the regular plural of "dwarf". Whether "dwarvish" will oust the insulting word "dwarfish" is doubtful.

Meanwhile, let us at least be consistent and not mix dwarves and dwarfs in the same paragraph. And let us also remember that the title of the 1938 Disney movie is and remains Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.



Exclude me in: What is the opposite of "exclusive"? Cheap; open to the public; common as muck; or merely "inclusive"? The question is provoked by this sentence, from a news story published on Wednesday: "The friend said Mrs De La Haye had called the police following the incident at the couple's exclusive beachfront apartment." "Exclusive" is commonly used to impart an air of glamour to places that are, in truth, merely expensive. It hardly ever conveys any actual information that makes any sense.

An "exclusive" shop, for instance, actually excludes nobody; but it is frequented only by people who can afford the goods it sells. That is true also of the corner shop at the bottom of our street. Even dafter is the idea of an "exclusive apartment". Presumably the exclusion covers anybody not invited in by the householder. Just like my house, then.



Military disasters: It has been a bad week for military hardware. A news story on Monday began thus: "The Syrian regime deployed gunboats against its own people yesterday in the Mediterranean port of Latakia. While gunboats raked the city's densely populated beachfront with machine-gun fire...."

So far, so good, but the headline said: "Gunships up the ante in Syrian regime's assault on its people." A gunboat is what you would expect – a boat armed with guns; that was what the Syrians were using. But a gunship, confusingly, is an aircraft equipped for ground-attack missions

Then on Thursday we ran an article recalling the end of the Soviet Union. One of the accompanying picture captions said: "A Soviet Army tank in Moscow." The picture plainly showed some kind of infantry fighting vehicle.

There is no point in attempting an exhaustive definition here, but if the vehicle in question has tracks, not wheels, and has a turret on top, about half-way along the hull, with a big gun sticking out, then you are probably safe to call it a tank. Otherwise call it an armoured vehicle, and you won't be wrong.



Mixed metaphor of the week: "The sky-high price has sparked a spate of museum burglaries," said a news story on Monday, about the trade in rhino horn. "Spark" has become a journalese synonym for "cause" or "provoke". A spate is a sudden flood of water. You cannot spark a spate.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Carpenter / Maintenance Operator

£25k plus Benefits: Guru Careers: A Carpenter and Maintenance Operator is need...

Recruitment Genius: Fabric Inspector

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Fabric Inspector is required to join an awar...

Recruitment Genius: Facilities & Project Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Facilities & Project Manager ...

Recruitment Genius: Software Testing Manager

£30000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic
10 best DSLRs

Be sharp! 10 best DSLRs

Up your photography game with a versatile, powerful machine
Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash