Errors & Omissions: Racking our brains only to wreck the metaphor

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The Independent Online

The main thing to remember about the word "wrack" is not to use it – unless you are writing a melancholy, romantic, Victorian-style ballad about ships and the seashore.

"Wrack" is an obscure and poetic-sounding noun, meaning stuff cast up on the shore, such as seaweed or wreckage from a foundered ship. There is also a verb "wrack", meaning to ruin or break in pieces, but even my venerable Oxford dictionary (1944 edition, reprinted with corrections, 1968) marks it as "Now archaic or dialect", so we needn't bother about it.

So much for "wrack". It will hardly ever be the right word to use in a newspaper report. Yet it pops up all the time. Here are two instances from the news pages of Monday's paper.

An article about Jaws said that the movie "turned visiting the beach into a nerve-wracking pursuit". That should be "nerve-racking". The image is of a victim of torture being stretched on a rack. Similarly, one racks one's brains when trying to force them to reveal some buried memory. And in a report of demonstrations at the G20 meeting: "Residents watched in shock as clashes between protesters and police wracked parts of downtown Toronto." Maybe the writer meant "racked", or maybe "wrecked".

Another commonly confused pair of words turned up in a comment piece on Monday about the World Cup: "'Of course we're losing in terms of goals, but we're convincingly beating them on corners,' says one of the counsel of experts on my sofa."

"Counsel" usually means advice, or legal advisers. To use it in the sense of a deliberative body is not absolutely wrong, but it is eccentric. In that sense "council" is more usual. In Latin, consilium means advice, concilium means a body of people called together. On the long journey into English by way of medieval French, the two words have come to be pronounced the same and their meanings have overlapped, while their spellings have remained distinct.

Throwaway line: Tuesday's front page carried a puff for an article inside: "Mary Dejevsky – My vision for the future of the Labour Party I love." If anyone had any doubts about the sentiments of my colleague Mary Dejevsky towards the Labour Party, her piece yesterday in defence of the Coalition will have laid them to rest.

In fact, "my vision for the future of the Labour Party I love" was a piece of gash copy, put into the layout as part of the design process and intended to be replaced later by more relevant words. But somebody forgot to do that. It is safer if gash copy says "Xxxxx xxxxxxxx" or even "fhrje yikw vebgfl ve; bvew".

Mark this well: "Google is attempting to salvage its operations in China, offering a compromise to the government in return for the renewal of its operating licence," said a news report on Wednesday. There followed details of the dispute, and then: "This marks the latest twist in the extraordinary saga of the internet search giant's operations in China."

No, it doesn't mark the latest twist, it is the latest twist. To mark something is to take notice of it. Thus, ceremonies for Remembrance Sunday mark the anniversary of the end of the First World War. Google might mark this latest twist in its Chinese troubles by, say, convening a special board meeting. But nothing can mark itself.

Clever bird: An article on Tuesday about the migration of the nightingale contained this: "The tracking of its incredible 3,000-mile odyssey was made possible by using a tiny location device." Two badly devalued words here.

First, the bird's journey is not incredible: I firmly believe it happened. And second, not every long journey is an odyssey. The point about the original Odyssey is the wanderings and mishaps on the way, which caused Odysseus to take 10 years for a journey of a few hundred miles, never knowing whether he would get there or not. The nightingale knew exactly how to get from England to West Africa, and completed the journey on schedule.