Errors & Omissions: The long and the short of it – and the unnecessary syllables

  • @johnrentoul

Several times this week we used "lengthy" as a lengthy version of "long".

I was once told that lengthy means overlong or tediously long, whereas long conveys no value judgement. I am not sure that is right, as we shall see, but generally I think we should prefer "long" anyway, just because "lengthy" has an unnecessary syllable. Thus, when we said on Monday, in our obituary of Tony Fell, the music publisher, "the executants sit at the end of a lengthy production process", we could have said "long". (Top marks for "executants", though.) In our obituary the next day of Bob Weston, the Fleetwood Mac guitarist, we said that his affair with Mick Fleetwood's wife, Jenny Boyd, broke up the band and "led to a lengthy legal battle". Again, "long" would have been fine.

But what about this, from Michael McCarthy, our Environment Editor, also on Monday? He reported that a corrosion problem with the Hammersmith Flyover can be temporarily repaired for the Olympics, but "the job is going to be complex and lengthy". He is not suggesting that the job would take longer than it should, but "long" would be odd there, unless the sentence were rephrased to say "take a long time", which would, er, make it needlessly complex and lengthy.

Metaphor watch: Niche is a pretty silly word. People are always carving niches for themselves, sometime unique ones, when no one has carved a recess in a wall since people lived in caves. Now it simply means a product, service or genre for which the market is tiny. Thus our review of the latest Danish television drama series, Borgen, on Monday, expressed the hope that the series would "turn out to be a negligibly niche affair", because that would save time otherwise spent watching it. "Put the statuette in the negligible niche, Doris." No: the metaphor fails.

Tautology watch: The leap second may be abolished, we reported on Tuesday. One has been inserted into "universal time" 24 times since 1972 to take account of the slowing of the Earth's rotation. We said that a vote at the UN agency responsible for international timekeeping "could mark its final demise". Final demise is tautological, and the vote would not "mark" it; it would be it.

Green: Virginia Ironside, in her "Dilemmas" column on Tuesday, gave advice to Angie, who had written to complain that "all my friends were invited to parties" on New Year's Eve. She asked Angie if she realised that "that phrase 'all my friends' is something that would make many people reading this column feel jealous". My admiration for Ironside will not deter me from my campaign to preserve the meaning of "jealous". She meant "envious": wanting something belonging to someone else. Jealousy is a fearful possessiveness, fearing that someone will take something of yours. One day, Angie will be jealous of her right to stay in on New Year's Eve.

Journalese: A business report on Thursday began: "Royal Bank of Scotland is set for a showdown with unions as it prepares to unveil thousands of job cuts." Job cuts are not something that anyone "unveils". They tend to be announced, but in this case we could have simply said that RBS was preparing "to cut thousands of jobs".