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Errors & Omissions

Whoever can't spell linchpin needs lynching

Another year nears its end; the seasons turn; the time for good resolutions and fresh beginnings approaches and still there are people who cannot spell "linchpin". This is from an arts feature on Thursday: "... an idealistic student who becomes the lynchpin in a plot by radicals..."

The verb "lynch", meaning to execute outside the regular law, derives from the name of a certain William Lynch who dispensed summary justice in 18th-century Virginia. A linchpin has nothing to do with that: it is a pin that passes through the axle of a cart to keep the wheel on. The "linch" bit comes from very old Germanic roots, surviving also in modern German in the form Lnse so don't mess about with it.

Religious conflict: This monster of a sentence is from Deborah Orr's Boxing Day column: "I don't want to worship God, but I don't find a secularism that champions individual rights with reasonable success, yet finds it much more difficult to inspire the sense of reverence that inspires individual responsibility, so intensely worthy of genuflection either."

There are several problems here. First, what is "the sense of reverence that inspires individual responsibility"? Search me. It would no doubt be possible to argue that reverence inspires responsibility, but the argument needs to be made. The connection is by no means self-evident.

Next, "intensely worthy of genuflection". Secularism is either worthy of genuflection or it isn't. It can be neither intensely nor slightly worthy of a genuflection. Of course, a better secularism might be worthy not only of genuflection but of prostration; something not so good would perhaps deserve a mere nod of the head. But we are talking here of degrees of merit, each worthy of a different reward, not of degrees of worthiness.

Worst of all is the shape of the sentence. The verbs "find" and "inspire" are each used twice, apparently from carelessness. The complex relative clause from "That champions ... " to "... responsibility" intrudes between "secularism" and "worthy". The poor reader is given "I don't find a secularism ..." and then has to plough through 23 words before discovering what it is that the writer doesn't find.

Journalese (1): The rescue of a 12-year-old girl who was the sole survivor of a light aircraft crash in the jungle of Panama is a dramatic story. No need, you would think, to dress it up in absurd hyperbole. But on Thursday that is what our news story did: "Rescue workers embarked on a five-hour trek yesterday to bring to safety a 12-year-old American girl who miraculously survived a weekend plane crash."

The word "miraculous" in its normal meaning, implying some form of divine intervention, obviously does not apply here, since there is no evidence of anything supernatural. There is also a broader meaning of "miraculous", closer to the word's Latin roots: amazing, a thing to be wondered at. But even that is not appropriate here. A light aircraft crashes; three of the occupants are killed, one survives. What is odd about that?

Journalese (2): A news item reported last Saturday: "James Lawton, The Independent's chief sports writer, won sports writer of the year at the prestigious What the Papers Say Awards yesterday." Well done, Lawton, but the word "prestigious" is redundant, as it nearly always is. Everybody knows that the sole purpose of such awards is to confer prestige. And it is inconceivable that any newspaper would describe as trivial or shameful an award one of its staff had won. "Prestigious" therefore conveys nothing that the reader will not assume anyway.

Tiny mistake: A news story last Saturday said that the Chapman brothers are "renowned for their off-the-wall artworks, including ... Hell, a depiction of more than 5,000 tiny Nazis".

The comic effect here may be deliberate, but it looks accidental. Hell consisted of more than 5,000 tiny figures depicting Nazis, but there is nothing to indicate that the Nazis it depicted were of other than normal size. To speak of "tiny Nazis" is to confuse a work of art with the thing it represents. You might as well say that Michelangelo's David depicts a man four metres tall. The Nazis were not tiny.