Errors & Omissions: Milton knew the meaning of chaos, and it certainly wasn't the M25

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The Independent Online

Transport chaos: "Britain braces for weeks of transport chaos," said the headline on yesterday's cover story about the weather. Is there a single word that has been so devalued by journalistic overuse as "chaos"?

For a description of proper chaos, see Book II of Paradise Lost. This is an eternal abyss of warring elements untouched by the ordering hand of the Creator. Long tailbacks on the M25 don't get anywhere near it. The trouble is that "chaos" is a short word, and short words tend to elbow their way into headlines. So "chaos" has become a mere code for difficulties on the roads. One odd thing is that "chaos" happens only on the roads. Disruption of rail and air travel produces not "chaos" but "misery".

Anyway, full marks to Jonathan Brown, the reporter who wrote the story. Here is his opening sentence: "Britain is gritting its teeth and its roads today in anticipation of the return of Arctic conditions, with heavy snow and ice-storms likely to bring wide-scale disruption." He has made up his own word-play on "gritting". He knows what "anticipation" means – not expecting something, but taking action about it. And he has called disruption disruption, not chaos.

Name game: An eponym is a person who gives his or her name to something. The word is from Greek and dictionaries connect it with various office-holders in the ancient world, such as the chief archon of Athens, whose names were given to the year in which they held office.

Fast forward to 21st-century New York, where Elaine Kaufman has just died – much to the sorrow of the celebrities who frequent her restaurant. The restaurant is called Elaine's. The heading on our obituary, published on Monday: "Elaine Kaufman: restaurateur whose eponymous restaurant was the favoured meeting place for New York's high society."

Sticklers for exactitude would say that that is wrong: the person who gives the name is eponymous, but the thing that takes it is not. So you could call Kaufman the eponymous owner of the restaurant, but the word should not be applied to the restaurant. I hope I am not endangering my membership of the National Union of Pedants and Nit-Picking Operatives by admitting that I am not driven to apoplexy by this "error". It is common for the meaning of a word to spread from one side of a transaction to the other. To take an example, "horror" starts off in Latin meaning shivering or dread, but already in medieval English it also means a thing that excites dread – as in "What a horror!". Something similar seems to have happened to "eponymous". Let's not lose sleep over it.

Who he? This column's pronoun campaign maintains its unsleeping watch. This is from a news report last Saturday: "Mr Johnson phoned Prince Charles yesterday to express his regret he had been caught up in the violence."

The reader has to take a moment to work out that "his" refers to Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, while "he" is the Prince. The task is not helped by the omission of "that" before "he". This is better: "Mr Johnson phoned Prince Charles yesterday to express regret that the Prince had been caught up in the violence."

Lost in translation: We have remarked before on the arbitrary way British usage treats foreign place names and landmarks. Why, for instance, is the name of the Triumphal Arch in Paris always left in the original French, while that of the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin is usually translated into English?

It can produce odd effects. On Tuesday we carried a story about an opera house in Moscow. A map showed the centre of the city, labelled "Moscow", but the waterway that runs through the city was labelled "Moskva River". So the city gets its English name – as it should – but the river of the same name stays in Russian. Why?

Mixed metaphor of the week: "Ahmadinejad wields axe to cement his position" – news headline on Tuesday. After which the Iranian President presumably felled a tree with a trowel. Well, knock me down with a linchpin!