Errors & Omissions: The Second World War is long over, but still a source of confusion


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The Independent Online

Everybody gets it wrong about the Second World War. David Cameron and Tony Blair, for instance, are both on record as implying the United States was a belligerent in 1940.

Compared with that sort of thing, the following is a minor error, but it illustrates the pitfalls of quoting facts without understanding their context. It comes from a news story about Rommel: "Defeated by General Bernard Law Montgomery's 7th Armoured Division, the famed 'Desert Rats', at the decisive battle of El-Alamein in 1942, Field Marshal Rommel wrote that his campaign against the British was a chivalrous affair."

The reference to "Montgomery's 7th Armoured Division" is sort of right. Montgomery was in command of the British and allied army at Alamein, and the 7th Armoured took part in the battle. But it was only one of 10 British and British Empire divisions involved. So while all the facts are right they have been combined in a way that creates a wrong impression. Incidentally, that is the first time I have seen a British publication refer to "General Bernard Law Montgomery". Hitherto, "Montgomery" has been enough. As the war starts to fade from living memory, the writer is probably right to assume that some people will need to be told who Montgomery was.

Unreal: Ian Craine writes to point out a wonderfully dotty deployment of belt and braces in last Saturday's paper. A personal-finance feature about problems with electronic payments included this: "In a typical case, Mr J (not his real name) lost out on £300 after someone who sold him a faulty car stereo refused to give the money back."

So, "Mr J" is not his real name? It sounds as if he must be a rap artist or a James Bond villain. His real name is probably Mr Q or Mr Z. Having disguised the man's identity with an initial, there was no need to trot out the familiar disclaimer "not his real name".

And what does "lost out on £300" mean? Could it possibly be the same as "lost £300"?

Never explain: I hope you weren't left feeling too inadequate by this opening to a report published last Saturday: "Boris Johnson is no stranger to high-end mingling, but if he is to preside over the Olympic fashion showcase next year, he'll need to work on his style-set jargon.

"'What are you wearing, Boris?' one journalist demanded of him as he opened London Fashion Week at a ceremony yesterday.

"'A suit?' he replied, clearly baffled."

No explanation was offered, and I was just as baffled as Boris. What could "What are you wearing?" possibly mean? The first colleague (female) I asked had no idea. The second explained that it means: "What label – the work of what designer – are you wearing?"

I don't criticise this story. Sometimes you must amuse those who will understand, while ruthlessly ignoring those who won't. Jokes that depend on literary or historical allusions have to be presented in that way. To explain the point is to kill the joke. But it is sobering to be the outsider.

Mixed metaphor of the week: "Markets rattled as spectre of Greek default sparks sell-off," said a business headline on Tuesday.

Yes, it's our old friends "spectre" and "sparks", two overused headline words. A spectre is an apparition, usually of a grisly or terrifying nature, that is visible but has no solid substance. The word is derived from the Latin verb spectare, to look or watch, which also gives us "inspect" and "spectator". A spectre could, I suppose, rattle chains as well as markets, but I can't see how it could strike sparks.

Homophone horror: On Thursday we ran a news story on a forthcoming education report: "Government awaits his findings with baited breath." That should be "bated".

"Bait" comes from an old Norse root, meaning food – hence food used to lure quarry. "Bate" is just a version of "abate" – to lessen the force of something, as when you hold your breath. Why don't we drop this cliché about "bated breath"? It only causes trouble.