Errors & Omissions: History is not quite repeating itself in the deserts of North Africa


On Wednesday, Patrick Cockburn wrote about Libya: "Forays to and fro by a few pick-ups with machine-guns in the back are reported as if they were German and British divisions fighting in the same area 70 years ago."

This is not wrong, but it does embody one of the many popular myths about the Second World War. Everybody knows that we beat the Germans in North Africa. Like so many of the things that "everybody knows", this is only sort of true. Everybody likes to big up a defeated enemy, but in fact the army we beat in North Africa was mostly Italian. The Axis forces present at the historic second battle of El Alamein, for instance, comprised four German divisions and nine Italian.

Verbiage: "There are certain rules by which one must abide in order to successfully survive a horror movie," said an arts feature article on Wednesday. There are certain words that can be struck out on sight, such as "famous" and "ever". One of them is "successfully". To do something "successfully" is simply to do it. How would you unsuccessfully survive a horror movie?

More verbiage: This is from a news story on Wednesday about the California wine estate of the film director Francis Ford Coppola: "In an act of reverse imperialism that is liable to set moustaches twitching across the rolling hillsides of Bordeaux, the film-maker has persuaded one of France's most revered winemakers to defect across the Atlantic to help reinvigorate his personal vineyard in California." This piece is datelined Los Angeles, not Bordeaux. It cites no evidence that anybody in France is annoyed that the winemaker Philippe Bascaules is moving to California. The stuff about twitching moustaches in Bordeaux has simply been made up. But everybody knows that the French are a touchy lot, so let's indulge in a bit of groundless speculation about how they may be "liable" to react to something we imagine they may see as an affront.

Too much: Tuesday's article on the Joan Miró exhibition at Tate Modern called him "an artist committed to both painting, politics and the power of art". Sorry, but painting, politics and the power of art are three things, and "both" applies to only two items. It means not just one but the other as well. It might be useful if we had a similar adverb that could be applied to a group of more than two things, meaning not just some but all. Unfortunately, we haven't.

Crop circles: A news story about inflation, published on Wednesday, was accompanied by four photographs with extended captions, illustrating "Commodities that could push inflation back up". One of the captions began as follows: "Corn: Suffered a triple-whammy effect from increased demand for it as a staple (maize feeds much of Africa), as an animal feed and as a biofuel." Unfortunately, the picture showed not maize but a field of wheat. There is a transatlantic confusion over the word "corn". In Britain it has traditionally meant any cereal crop such as wheat or barley. But in the past half-century we have heard more of the American usage, according to which corn (as in popcorn, sweetcorn and corn-fed chicken) means maize, a plant native to America. You can use the word "corn" in either meaning, but don't mix the two.

By the way, haven't we had enough of these double and triple whammies? Has anybody seen a quadruple whammy? What is a whammy anyway, and why is there no such thing as a single whammy? These questions have been raised before, but never satisfactorily answered.

Cliche of the week: "Mr Murdoch has set aside a £20m war chest to settle the legal claims," said a report on the phone-hacking scandal. Wars are fought with money, and medieval monarchs needed to take a big box of ready cash on campaign to pay mercenary troops. That is a war chest. Mr Murdoch's £20m, however, is not for fighting his adversaries but for paying them off: more like a surrender chest than a war chest.

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