Errors and Omissions: Our language betrays how we love to take pot shots at the middle classes

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The Independent Online

As a proud son of the bourgeoisie, I have remarked before on the widespread snobbery that makes it acceptable to sneer at the middle classes. It is as if writers feel that readers need constant reassurance that they are not the kind of middle-class people who read the Daily Mail.

On Wednesday, Matthew Norman looked at the Labour leadership contest: "'Inclusivity' will be the key, which loosely translates to trying to offend none of the people none of the time by fudging the divides between the interests of the poorest, the self-interest of the professional middle class and the immigration concerns of the C2s in between."

So the poor have "interests" and the C2s have "concerns", but the middle class has "self-interest". It is not quite clear whether this distinction exists in Norman's mind or whether he is attributing it – no doubt correctly – to Labour politicians. Either way, it is mere bigotry. All these groups are pursuing their own interests – why shouldn't they? The middle class is just better at it.

Orwell, thou shouldst be living at this hour. Always, we need to analyse the political uses of language. Until recently, unskilled workers who feared for their jobs and their social housing and consequently hated immigrants were rebuked for racism. The rise of the British National Party has changed all that. Now that the C2s have found somewhere to take their votes other than the Labour Party, it has been discovered that they have "concerns" that must be "addressed".

A bit evil: An article last Saturday described a polygamous religious community in Arizona. "The church's leader, Warren Jeffs," it said, "is a somewhat notorious figure."

Is it possible to be "somewhat notorious"? Well, it's not an absurdity on the lines of "somewhat pregnant"; there can be varying degrees of notoriety. It just seems odd to use such a heavily pejorative word as "notorious", and then draw back by qualifying it with "somewhat". Why not use a milder term in the first place? Mr Jeffs might, for instance, be "controversial" or "outlandish".

Journalese: A news story on Tuesday reported: "Meteorologists in the United States are warning of an unusually active hurricane season this summer, stirring concerns that just one severe tempest at sea early on could cripple ongoing operations by BP and the US government to plug the crippled oil well in the Gulf of Mexico and contain the already giant spill."

It is no longer polite to refer to a person as crippled. Reporters, however, love using the word about damaged ships, aircraft and the like. But let's not get so carried away as to use it twice in the same sentence. And remember that "cripple" is derived from an old Teutonic verb meaning "creep". A cripple is a person who has lost the use of one or more limbs. The word is all about impaired capacity to move. So a ship may certainly be crippled. An operation, possibly. But a well? No.

Mystery of the deep: A weird news briefing item on Monday dealt with records kept by the Royal Navy on sightings of sea monsters "including an 1830 report by the captain of the ship Rob Roy about a 'great, thundering sea snake' about 129ft long".

"Aye, shipmate, I tell 'ee, I saw it as plain as I'm seeing you now, a cable's length off the starboard bow. Not an inch under 129 feet it were; though now I recall it to mind, mebbe it were an inch or two more. Well, anyways, I'd swear it were somewhere between 128ft 9in and 129ft 3in ..."

"About 129 feet long" makes no possible sense. Either explain it (I cannot) or strike it out.

First shall be last: "We have had the nice joke of the outgoing Chief Secretary leaving a note for his predecessor saying that there was no money left." So wrote Hamish McRae on Wednesday. "Predecessor" should have been "successor".

Similarly, it is quite common to find people writing "ancestor" when they mean "descendant". Why this confusion between the past and the future?

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