Errors & Omissions: 'Mercenary' or 'contractor'? Both reveal the writer's bias


"Fears are growing for the safety of four British private contractors captured during a gun battle in the Horn of Africa." That was the opening sentence of a news story on Monday. Why do we have to call mercenary soldiers "contractors" – which sounds like builders?

Military historians recognise two sorts of full-time professional soldiers fighting for pay: mercenaries and regulars. Mercenaries are hired as ready-made units. Regulars are recruited as individuals into units organised by the government that employs them. If you doubt whether the calling of the mercenary soldier can be an honourable one, visit the cathedral of Florence and take a look at the memorial fresco Paolo Uccello painted for Sir John Hawkwood, the English knight who served the city so well in the 1390s. However, the word "mercenary" – derived from the Latin word for "wages" – suggests to many readers a thug who keeps his conscience in his wallet. Mercenaries, who have been employed in increasing numbers in recent years, prefer the term "contractor". So did Hawkwood and his like in Renaissance Italy. They were known as condottieri – which means "contractors".

I am not suggesting we should call all these modern "security contractors" mercenaries, for it would look as if we intended to insult them. I merely lament the existence of yet another pair of tendentious words for the same thing, like terrorist/freedom fighter and nuclear weapon/deterrent. A contractor and a mercenary are indistinguishable, except that the one is approved of by the writer and the other not. There is no neutral term, and no way writers can consistently use the same word for the same thing without adopting attitudes. Such corrupted language hampers the honourable calling of the reporter, which is to give the readers a selection of facts and leave them to make up their own minds.

Due for a change: Some time around 1970, teachers of English decided they could draw a salary without bothering to teach grammar. The result is that today many people will have difficulty grasping what is wrong with this headline, which appeared on a news page on Thursday: "Obama blocks release of Bin Laden photographs due to security fears."

Here we go again, then, with the great "due to" problem. Ask yourself what is due to the security fears. The answer is the decision to block the release of the photographs. But the word "decision" does not appear in the headline, so "due to" is left floating in the air, so to speak. The headline needs to be recast. With grammar, all you need to say is that "due" is an adjective, and must modify a noun or pronoun.

Cliché of the week: On Monday a news story reported on an experiment by some university engineers who have re-enacted the Dambusters raid to find out how the bouncing bomb worked. The report burbled: "A maverick inventor, Barnes Wallis, came up with the idea of using bouncing bombs."

A maverick is an unbranded, ownerless calf; hence, a masterless person who goes their own way. We all know about maverick inventors: flyaway hair; colourful bow ties; brilliant ideas developed in a garage; scorned by the establishment.

Barnes Wallis worked nearly all his professional life for Vickers, one of the biggest names in 20th-century British engineering, and ended up with a knighthood. Some of his brilliant ideas were pretty far out – we don't hear much, for instance, of his giant cargo-carrying submarines – but he was no maverick.

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