"Chaos on roads and railways to continue today, warn forecasters." That headline appeared over a news story on Monday. It happens every winter: severe weather is greeted by the absurdly overdramatic word "chaos". Of course, "chaos" is a short word, and as such very difficult to keep out of headlines.
More journalese was provoked on Thursday by the convulsions in football. A back-page blurb screamed: "Incredible drama as England manager resigns over Terry captaincy row."
The corruption of the word "incredible" is just one of those things. Once a synonym for "unbelievable", it has slipped sideways to become a synonym for "amazing". No loss there; except that "incredible" no longer functions as the opposite of "credible", which is odd.
More serious, in my view, is the assumption that readers cannot be given the facts and left to make up their own minds as to whether this is an incredible drama. Do people really need to be told what to feel by the writer of a blurb? We're only hacks, for heaven's sake; purveyors of information who occasionally rise to the dignity of the urchin in the gutter who points out that the emperor has no clothes. Why should anybody care what we think?
Nameless horror: Here is another sideways shift of meaning. My old Shorter Oxford is quite clear: "anonymous" means having no name, or of unknown name. On Monday, we published an appreciation of a Cézanne painting that has fetched a record price: "Two poor men sit across from each other playing cards in an anonymous café in the south of France." Here "anonymous" seems to mean obscure or unremarkable.
Cliché of the week: A story published on Wednesday quoted Rachel Johnson, one of the judges of the Hatchet Job of the Year award: "This is an award designed not to punish bad writing, but to reward good and brave and funny and learned reviewing, a profession that receives precious other pecuniary recognition."
Did Rachel Johnson actually say "precious little" and suffer misquotation, or did she really leave out the "little"? It doesn't matter. If it was her mistake, we should have done her the favour of correcting it. Hansard allows MPs to tidy up their Commons speeches. Reporters often give a little help to the utterances of inarticulate people who happen to be witnesses to some newsworthy event – otherwise they could not be quoted at all. It would be churlish not to extend the same courtesy, if needed, to the editor-in-chief of The Lady. However, "precious little" and "precious few" are in general to be discouraged. They are the ossified remains of a colloquial use of "precious" as an intensifier that seems to have been common in the 19th century but now sounds quaint – not so say precious.
Keep a secret: "A messy court case has shed light on Australia's richest and most secretive family," said the introductory blurb to an article published last Saturday.
Well, they may very well be the richest family in Australia, but "most secretive" cannot possibly be known to be true. It may be just a rhetorical flourish, but rhetoric should also stand up as fact. No matter how secret this family may be, it is always possible that there is at least one yet more secretive family that the writer knows nothing about. They're secretive, you see.