Errors & Omissions: How did a dog end up on a list of famous cats?
Saturday 13 August 2011
Silly lists are fun to read, but what are they for?
No newsdesk can report a story about, say, a one-eyed opera singer without setting an eager intern to work researching the internet to compile a list of history's notable disabled performers. There are all those blind blues singers for a start, and Sarah Bernhardt with her dodgy leg, and then ... Yes, the mad human brain starts compiling lists quite unbidden, but what does it all prove?
Tom Campbell of Birmingham writes to point out a story we carried last Saturday. It concerned a Big Issue seller and his ginger cat, soon to be the subject of a book. The report was accompanied by a list headed "Famous felines". The "felines" included not only Humphrey the Downing Street cat, and Socks from the White House but, puzzlingly, the fictional meerkat from the insurance adverts and a Great Dane called George.
What these animals have in common is not being "felines" – which half of them are not – but having been the subject of books. Whoever wrote the heading got it wrong. This must be near the top of anybody's list of pointless lists.
Cliché of the week: "For millions of savers, borrowers and investors, the market volatility continues to reap havoc with their personal finances," said a business page on Wednesday. That should of course be "wreak havoc", a hackneyed term made up of two fossilised but charming old words.
"Wreak" is an old English word meaning to avenge, or inflict punishment. "Havoc" is a technical term in the medieval laws of war. Remember Antony in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,/ With Ate by his side come hot from hell,/ Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice/ Cry 'Havoc' and let slip the dogs of war."
If a castle or town surrendered on terms, before its defences were breached, the victorious commander of the besieging army undertook to protect the inhabitants and garrison. They would pay an agreed indemnity, out of which the besieging army would receive a bounty, but there would be no general sack.
If, on the other hand, the attackers were put to the trouble and peril of storming a breach to get in, there would be no mercy. Military discipline in the attacking army would be suspended and there would follow three days of slaughter, rape and pillage. The signal for the horrors to begin was the cry of "Havoc".
Whether today's "market volatility" is as bad as that, this column does not presume to judge, but anyway "havoc" later became a noun, meaning destruction and devastation.
Out of favour: This is from the Thursday Feature: "[Boris] Johnson has been alarmingly nonchalant about his peculiar, anachronistic personality ever since he emerged into the fierce sunlight of Thatcher's approval as her favourite right-wing journalist. Like all the men on whom her favours fell, he had not only intellect but charisma." I think not. Margaret Thatcher certainly bestowed her favour on all kinds of Tory politicians and journalists. Her favours would have been something else entirely.
Weight for it: On Thursday we reported on ad hoc local defence forces formed in reaction to the riots. Having quoted one of the hefty blokes involved, we added: "In his spare time Mr Cook is a professional wrestler, and weighs 16 stone." And when he is doing his day job as manager of a DVD store, how much does he weigh then?
The grammatical problem here is that the two verbs "is" and "weighs" relate in the same way to the qualifying phrase "in his spare time". It can easily be fixed by packaging "weighs" differently, as a relative clause depending on "Mr Cook". Thus: "In his spare time Mr Cook, who weighs 16 stone, is a professional wrestler."
Verbiage: "Something of" turned up again on Monday in a fashion piece. Viktor & Rolf have "something of a reputation for catwalk theatrics". What is the difference between "something of a reputation" and "a reputation"? Two words.
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