Errors & Omissions: Like the disease itself, the 'battle with cancer' can always recur


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This week the radio presenter Jenni Murray, in a terrific article in this newspaper, commented on the cliché that has patients fighting a "battle with cancer". As she and I, and I imagine every other cancer survivor, know perfectly well, there is no "battle". You have an illness; the doctors treat it. With luck you live, or you don't. That's it. Cancer is not an ogre, and you can't do anything to "fight" it.

I suspect that the "battle with cancer" arises from the same source as the Diana conspiracy theories – the human mind is reluctant to think that the momentous question of life and death can be governed by mere blind chance. There has to be a drama going on.

In a news story in yesterday's paper, the "battle with cancer" broke out anew: "The campaign to give Vega the wedding day of her dreams took off after she told a newspaper about her battle with cancer." In this case, however, there was not only no "battle", but there was also no cancer. Now a penitent Jessica Vega of New York is paying back the well-wishers she cheated.

So the idea of a "battle with cancer" can open the way to fraud. It is good to have a little bit of evidence that we pedants are not just obsessive order-freaks, that upholding clarity of language really matters.

Homophone horror (1): A film review published on Thursday told us: "He's helped by the fact that his character has a proper ark, and goes from being the social butterfly to the loner." "Ark" is an old English word, probably from the Latin arca, a chest. It means a covered chest, bin or basket, as well as a ship or boat. It is pretty well archaic now, surviving only in certain specific cases such as the biblical Noah's Ark and Ark of the Covenant, and the naval ship name Ark Royal.

What the film character has is not an ark but an arc (Middle English, from Old French, from the Latin arcus, a bow). That is, a part of a circle, the path of a heavenly body, and hence the path of a character's personal development or fate.

Homophone horror (2): This is from a feature article, published on Thursday, about the planning for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee river parade: "The first thing they will hear as the flotilla approaches from the west will be the peel of eight mighty church bells."

Bells have no peel, and peeling doesn't make much sound anyway. What bells do is peal – at least they do in England; we won't go into the deplorable continental habit of making bells play tunes.

Not fair: According to the report of an interview, published on Tuesday, the playwright Laura Wade has "long blonde hair".

As usual, writers of English struggle to cope with French gender. Blond is a French adjective meaning the colour of fair hair or golden sands. A woman with fair colouring is une blonde – and it is in that feminine form that the word entered the English language. But there is no need to use the feminine form in English except when applied to a woman. A blonde has blond hair.

(It is not strictly relevant, but it does happen to be the case that the French word for hair is masculine – a person with fair hair has les cheveux blonds not blondes.)