Errors & Omissions: Iconic smoking gun and other crimes against the English language


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The Independent Online

The other day somebody said "dichotomy" and I was transported back half a century. You hardly ever hear that word nowadays, but back in the Sixties everything seemed to be a dichotomy. Words go in and out of fashion like anything else.

May we hope that the irritating "iconic" is at its apogee, and will soon decline? Peter Jefferson Smith has written in to draw attention to a piece published last Saturday about the long campaign waged by climate change contrarians to discredit the "hockey stick" graph of global temperatures. The article said at one point that the hockey stick had "become the iconic smoking gun for both sides of the debate".

An icon is an object of veneration, or just an easily recognisable image; a smoking gun is incontrovertible proof that a crime has been committed. I don't think the hockey stick is much like either of them.

While we are poking about in the property basket of dusty old metaphors, may I suggest that perhaps the hockey stick that became a smoking gun is not so much an icon as a shibboleth (a sign that shows which side you are on), or even an oriflamme (a sacred banner held aloft in battle)? You don't hear too much about either of them these days.

And by the way, since you ask, no, I don't think climate change contrarians have a right to demand that the media call them sceptics. A sceptic approaches a question with an open mind and accords belief in proportion to the weight of the evidence. The people who have done that are the climate scientists. The contrarians, by contrast, move heaven and earth to discredit the evidence, so as to maintain a preconceived view.

Cliché of the week: The Costa Concordia, like every other ship involved in an accident, was widely reported to be a "stricken vessel". This phrase is not only a cliché but a fossil as well. Nothing is ever stricken except a vessel, and a ship or boat is rarely called a vessel unless it is stricken.

Firing squad: "Former drug addict wins prestigious poetry prize" – news headline published on Tuesday. You mean as opposed to a banal, dull or shameful prize?

All prizes confer prestige – that is what they are for. "Prestigious" is one of those words that can generally be taken out and shot with a minimum of ceremony.

Not too good: Another message comes from Bob Lowrie, who draws attention to the following sentence, from a leading article published on Thursday: "What publican does not believe that there would be more of a buzz in the bar if the price gap between a pint drawn there and one carted home from the supermarket were not much narrower than it is?"

The writer set out to say that all publicans believe that they would do more business if the price gap between drinks in a bar and drinks bought in a supermarket were narrower. The statement was turned into a rhetorical question and the word "not" was put in at two places. The result is that the sentence ends up saying the opposite of what was intended. It is just too long and involved; any sentence of more than 25 words with more than one "not" in it is a hostage to fortune.

Desperate plea: Last Saturday on this page, no less a stylist than Robert Fisk wrote: "Nicolas Sarkozy has many times beseeched Netanyahu to get rid of him." "Beseeched" is recognised by dictionaries, but those who treasure irregular verbs will be sad to think that "besought" is beyond help.