Errors & Omissions: Descriptions with which you might – or might not – strike lucky
Last month, after a picture caption had called an infantry fighting vehicle a tank, this column ventured on an explanation of what is and is not a tank. We described what characteristics define a tank, and ended with the words: "Otherwise call it an armoured vehicle, and you won't be wrong."
That could have been a mistake. On a news page on Monday there appeared the following caption: "Rebel armoured vehicles near Sirte, one of the last strongholds of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi." The picture showed the usual collection of cars, vans and pick-up trucks with guns bolted to the back. These are definitely soft-skinned. It had never entered my head that anyone would call them armoured vehicles.
Then came this, from a news story, published on Wednesday, about the Defence and Security Equipment International arms fair in the London Docklands: "In the canals outside, huge battleships are moored."
There are no battleships in service with any navy in the world today. The last were the US Iowa class, decommissioned in the 1990s.
Some people know how to describe military hardware and others do not. The same applies to fashion, football, opera or any other specialist field of knowledge. Nobody can be expected to know everything. Attempts by people like me to provide easy-to-use field guides for the uninitiated are perhaps of limited value. But they are all we have, apart from consulting colleagues and striking lucky.
Think of England: C J Woods has written to take us to task for this headline, which appeared on the front page last Saturday: "Experts: UK has too many types of school". Mr Woods points out that the story below clearly relates not to the UK but to England alone. He continues: "Readers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland accept that a London newspaper reports on English affairs unless otherwise stated. Such readers do however object to 'UK' being used as a synonym for England." Quite right.
A defence of the headline, albeit a desperate one, could be mounted by arguing as follows. Assume that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have the right number of types of school. If, then, England has too many, then, on aggregate, the UK as a whole has too many. So the headline is true. Well, yes, but I am not going to claim that the person who wrote the headline was thinking like that. It is much more likely that they just wrote "UK" without reflecting the story was actually about England. Mr Woods' criticism stands.
We pedants are often accused of resisting the evolution of the language, out of a conviction that all change is for the worse. Not true, but sometimes it is hard to resist the conviction that English prose enjoyed its golden age from the mid-18th to the mid-20th century (Gibbon to Keynes, say), and we live in a time of decay.
Take this, from an article in the British Medical Journal, quoted in last Saturday's magazine. The writer called for a national policy on trans fats to "protect all susceptible populations including children and socio-economically disadvantaged sub-groups". So the people our great-grandparents would have called "the poor" have become "socio-economically disadvantaged sub-groups". Does this mean that we are thinking more clearly than our great-grandparents did, or are we just addicted to high-sounding academic jargon? And are the poor any better off for being given a fancy label?
Deny it if you can: On Tuesday, a news story reported: "The Chancellor, who was photographed with his arm around Ms Rowe in front of what was reported to be a line of cocaine, has always strongly refuted suggestions that he took drugs." I think we meant that Mr Osborne has always strongly denied suggestions that he took drugs. If we say he refuted them, we may seem to be taking his side and explicitly accepting his denial. Let us not give up on "refute". It is a useful word, meaning to prove wrong. If we keep using it as a mere synonym for "deny", we will lose it.
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