Errors & Omissions: A lesson learnt from the misuse of definite articles


Last week I indulged in a grumpy denunciation of foreigners who try to tell us English speakers what to call their cities and countries in our language.

The question arose because a writer in The Independent had used the traditional form “the Ukraine”. I expressed sympathy with that, and impatience with the now preferred “Ukraine”.

What I didn't know was precisely why Ukrainians bridle at their country being called "the Ukraine". Professor Ron Hill, a scholar of East European politics, has written from Trinity College, Dublin. He confirms that the word "Ukraine" means "frontier" and explains that for Ukrainians the old style portrays their country as "the borderland" of the Russian empire, a notion that offends their national sensibilities. He goes on: "Even the Russians seem to have conceded the point. When I learned Russian, half a century ago, the 'correct' grammar was 'na Ukrainie' (literally, on the borderland); now that Ukraine is a separate country, Russians of the younger generation say 'v Ukrainie' (in Ukraine), just as they say 'v Anglii' (in England)."

Professor Hill ends with a plea to those who cling to the "the" on Ukraine: "Younger nations are naturally rather sensitive about how they are perceived. Have a heart, and save ink at the same time!" The professor is right. It's Ukraine without the "the".

Shocking: This is from a news story published on Tuesday: "He was hit by a District line train, but police are investigating whether he was electrocuted first."

The hideous verb "electrocute" has a chequered history. It starts with the verb "execute". That is derived from exsecutus, the past participle of the Latin verb exsequor, meaning to pursue or carry out. Hence, to carry out a death sentence. Hence, to kill in execution of a judicial sentence, or in circumstances that recall judicial execution, as in the "execution" of hostages. So far, so good, but then in the 1880s, when the world was being transformed by the new electrical technologies, some ingenious Americans decided that execution by electric shock would be more humane than hanging. The electric chair was invented, and the portmanteau verb "electrocute" is dated from 1889.

Today, it has become annoyingly vague, signifying either just an electric shock or death from electric shock. But it is ugly too.

Exsequor is a variation of sequor meaning "follow". That verb lies at the root of several English words including "sequence", "sequel", "prosecute" and "consequence". The central, irreducible syllable that carries the DNA, so to speak, of these words is the sound "sec".

Nobody who cares for the forms of words can lay eyes on "electrocute" without being conscious of the vandalism involved in splitting "execute" into "exe-cute", before tacking the bleeding rump on to "electro-". How could anybody possibly get from "sequor" to "-cute"? Hanging is too good for "electrocute". The sentence above would much better have read: "He was hit by a District line train, but police are investigating whether he had suffered an electric shock from the rails."

No style: Last Saturday we published a news story about Omar bin Laden, a respectable businessman who bears no responsibility for the notorious career of his father, Osama bin Laden. It reported that Mr bin Laden "rejected his father's lifestyle as a teenager". The word "lifestyle" is generally best avoided. It sounds frivolous, evoking a world of "lifestyle choices" made on the basis of "lifestyle" magazines. Now apparently religious fanaticism and mass murder have become a "lifestyle".