Errors & Omissions: Who needs enemies when you can have 'liberators'?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

My Hungarian grandfather, in the years before he fled to this country, had lived under the Nazis and then under the post-war Communists. All he ever said about it was that the Communists were bad, but the Nazis were worse.

I was reminded of him by a review, published yesterday, of the film Anonyma, a drama played out against the background of the mass rape of German women by troops of the Red Army, invading Germany from the east at the end of the Second World War. The review called this "the inglorious and harrowing story of what happened when the Red Army liberated Berlin". During the Second World War it was routine to call any gain of ground by the Allies a liberation. The habit persists, 70 years later. But in the east it was an odd kind of liberation.

"Liberate" means "set free". What happened in central Europe as Hitler's legions were rolled back by Stalin's may have been, in the long run and the wider picture, a very good thing for the world. On the ground at the time it may have meant, as my grandfather reported, that a terrible situation became a bit less bad. But if in 1944 and 1945 the Red Army really did "liberate" Berlin and Warsaw, Prague and Budapest, what was everybody so happy about in 1989?

Too much: I hope I shall not be drummed out of the Royal and Ancient Order of Pedants if I confess that some of the most hotly denounced "errors" of style and grammar leave me unmoved. I see no point, for instance, in insisting that "decimate" means "kill one in 10". Do we need a word that means "kill one in 10"? Do we not have more use for a word that means "inflict grievous and crippling losses"? Which is more important, respecting a word's derivation or making it earn its keep?

But some last ditches of pedantry really are worth defending, littered though they may be with the grisly unburied dead of repeated assaults by the forces of ignorance. One of them is "plethora".

This is from a spread on Wednesday about the marine life of the Chagos Islands. "There is no doubt that the case for full protection is a formidable one. The Chagos Islands contain around half of the healthy coral reefs remaining in the Indian Ocean and an untouched plethora of marine life which almost everywhere else is suffering massive losses from over-exploitation, pollution and bycatch."

If a plethora really were suffering losses that would be a good thing. "Plethora" is a 16th-century medical term. It was believed that good health depended on various bodily substances such as blood and bile being in a proper balance. A plethora was an excess of one over the others.

So there are two errors you can fall into with the figurative use of "plethora". You can forget, as here, that a plethora is bad. Or you can use the word vaguely to mean a lot of bad stuff, forgetting that a plethora is a harmful excess of something that, in due measure, would be harmless, or even beneficial.

Do we need a word that means a harmful excess? Yes. Do we need another synonym for "wealth", "abundance" or "excess"? No.

Damning verdict: Don't they tell young reporters anything any more? A report of a murder trial, published last Saturday, informed us: "Mrs Prout's family burst into tears after the verdict was passed." In the days when dinosaurs walked the earth, the chief reporters of local weekly newspapers dinned into our infant minds the information that a jury returns a verdict, and a coroner sitting alone records it. I don't think it was thought necessary to warn us that nobody ever passes a verdict.

When was that? Brian Viner wrote in his Tuesday television review: "The former British ambassador to the US presents Getting Our Way, a three-part series about the history of British diplomacy, and in last night's opener mused that he would love to have played a part in the Byzantine international relations of Elizabethan times."

It is not clear whether Viner or Meyer is the source of this odd mixture of historical periods, but either way, a question springs into the reader's mind: if Elizabethan England was Byzantine, then what was Byzantium?