Errors & Omissions: Oscar Wilde died too young to be an eminent Edwardian

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The Independent Online

"In May 1897," said a column published last Saturday, "Oscar Wilde composed a letter to the editor of the Daily Chronicle on the subject of child prisoners ... . If it was an absurdity to enlightened Edwardians, it is undeniably tragic now."

Banging up children in jail no doubt was an absurdity to enlightened Edwardians, but Oscar Wilde was never one of them.

I think people have a picture in their minds of Victorians as solid, stern, sexually repressed types in stovepipe hats who built railways and sang hymns. Oscar Wilde, with his cigarettes, rent boys and witty epigrams, cannot be a Victorian, surely. So he must be the next thing that came along, an Edwardian. The impression that Wilde was an Edwardian figure is reinforced by theatrical producers who sometimes dress his women in the suffragettish fashions of about 1910.

The stark fact is that when Wilde died on 30 November 1900, the death of Queen Victoria and the succession of her son Edward VII were still nearly two months away.


Immortal: So, from the death of one martyr to anti-gay prejudice to the birth of another. On Wednesday, we published a news story about the call by Richard Dawkins and others for an official apology to Alan Turing, the Cambridge mathematician, computer pioneer and Bletchley Park codebreaker who committed suicide in 1954.

Professor Dawkins, we reported, "said that Turing would still be alive today if it were not for the repressive laws which drove him to despair". I don't know whether Dawkins used the word "would", or whether a reporter put it in without thinking. Either way, somebody should have realised that it was dotty. Only a few people who were adults during the Second World War are still with us. Turing, born 23 June 1912, might conceivably be alive today, but he would be 97.


Lost in translation: Last Saturday we published a story about people in France who grow jasmine as an ingredient for Chanel No 5. Apparently the International Fragrance Association has issued a regulation limiting the amount of jasmine used in scents. They were worried about allergies.

Would Chanel No 5 never be the same again? A spokesperson for Chanel was reassuring: "Evidently, when the new standards were issued we immediately checked the percentages in our finished products and in none of our fragrances is the recommended level exceeded."

Evidently? Doesn't this person know for sure whether they checked or not? To illuminate this mystery, I can do no better than to quote Harrap's French dictionary: "Note that the French word évidemment is a false friend, and is never a translation for the English word evidently. It means of course."

One of two things has happened here. Either the spokesperson was speaking French and said "évidemment", meaning "of course" and has been mistranslated. Or they were speaking English and got it wrong. Either way, the word "evidently" should have been struck out.


Cat count: Editors have a duty to tidy up the language of innocent civilians who are quoted in the press. A query sent into the Pets page of last Saturday's magazine began like this: "One of my local friend's cats died suddenly and the vet said it was poisoning."

The positioning of that apostrophe implies that the writer has someone to whom she refers as "my local friend", and this person has several cats, one of which has died. That sounds odd. Surely she meant to say that she has several local friends who have cats. It should read "my local friends' cats".


Headline horrors: Headlines are supposed to be dramatic, but don't try too hard. This was on a news page last Saturday: "Drones: silent killers or a vital source of information against the Taliban?" The question is phoney. The story confirms that the answer is exactly what you would expect: both.

On Tuesday another headline about Afghanistan fell into the opposite error of embarrassed mumbling: "Tributes paid to latest Army fatalities". Few words should be absolutely banned, but "fatality" is one. A furtive, bureaucratic euphemism for "death", it has no place in the vocabulary of any decent person. What is wrong with "latest soldiers to die", or even the dignified, old-fashioned "fallen soldiers"?