Errors & Omissions: Call me a guru but even my pedantry doesn't go this far

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Usage for pedants: Strange though this admission may seem to readers of this column, it is possible for pedantry to over-reach itself. A colleague has pointed out to me the following sentence, from a news story on Monday: "It is therefore a fair bet that the Russian plutocrat and his girlfriend ... will not be in residence ... when the doors are opened to the hoi polloi on the neighbouring property."

Hoi polloi is Greek. It means "the many" or "the common people". Some argue that you should never put "the" before "hoi polloi", because to do so is to write, in effect, "the the many".

However, there is such a thing as usage. If "the hoi polloi" is wrong, it has been wrong since at least 1882, when W S Gilbert wrote in Iolanthe: "'Twould fill with joy/ And madness stark/ The hoi polloi/ (A Greek remark)."

I am reminded of the colleague on another newspaper who always used to strike out references to "the French TGV high-speed train". He argued that TGV stands for train à grande vitesse, which means "high-speed train"; so if you write "TGV high-speed train", you are actually saying "High-Speed Train high-speed train". The logic is impeccable, but logic can lead you beyond the bounds of common sense.

By the same logic, you should never write "PIN number" or "HIV virus". But people do – just as they say "the hoi polloi". Even in the realm of linguistic correctitude there are more important issues than the concealed tautologies that creep into usage under the cover of acronyms or translations. Not many English-speakers know, for instance that sahara is Arabic for "desert". So "the Sahara desert" is, by the same logic, "wrong".

Cliché of the week: "PR guru Max Clifford on his private passions and pet hates" – from the contents list in last Saturday's magazine. It is not wrong to call Mr Clifford a guru. The word means an Indian religious teacher, and hence anyone who offers guidance based on arcane knowledge – which is indeed what he does. It is just getting a bit tedious that no one can mention Max Clifford without uttering the phrase "PR guru". Oh, and "pet hates" is a cliché as well.

Dumb question: What is the opposite of dumbing down? The question was raised by Stephen Glover in his Monday media column when he wrote: "While slashing its cover price, The Times dramatically dumbed down ... That process has gradually been reversed as ... it slowly dumbed up again."

"Dumbed up" is a pleasantry – but is there an authentic antonym to "dumb down"? Clever up, perhaps? Whatever it is, it doesn't seem to have crossed the Atlantic. However, another American mystery has been solved. Last week, we commented on a report that a queue for food in Japan "stretched six city blocks". The British reader cannot be expected to know how far that is. An American correspondent informs me that, in New York at least, the reckoning is 20 blocks to the mile, a "block" being the distance, along any of Manhattan's north-south avenues, between two adjoining transverse streets.

Metaphor mash (1): "Breakthrough paves way for early-warning diabetes test," said a news headline on Monday. It is a bit of a come-down from a triumphant army breaking the enemy front to a couple of blokes paving a patio.

Metaphor mash (2): "Telescope sales are rocketing because of Brian Cox's hit TV shows" – blurb introducing a news report on Saturday. And are rocket sales telescoping?