Errors & Omissions (Russian edition): Whisky galore - but this sentence is on the rocks

Our favourite pedant notes that if you're willing to invoke Anna Karenina to invoke Russia, you ought to presume they know who Tolstoy is


There are two sorts of people. One lot yearn to see logical patterns, and hate being distracted by “irrelevant” information. The others just love facts – the more the better.

It was clearly a pattern freak who wrote the following introduction to a “Trending” item published on Monday: “It’s as Russian as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and the Siberian steppe, but vodka has a new challenger as the world’s fourth heaviest drinking nation’s spirit of choice.”

This is a story about Russians taking to whisky, so the identities of the three heaviest drinking nations are “irrelevant”, by the lights of the pattern-tracers. But, sorry, I’m one of the other lot, and to us fact magpies, it is maddening that the piece fails to give this obviously interesting information. It’s not difficult to find: the world boozing medallists are Moldova, the Czech Republic and Hungary. But why should we have to take the trouble of looking it up?

And, perversely, there is a piece of information that we don’t need: “Tolstoy’s”. If you choose to use Anna Karenina as an exemplar of something quintessentially Russian, you must believe that the reader is familiar with the character – and doesn’t need to be told who created her.

Homophone horror: This is one of those errors that recur with depressing frequency. It was spotted by more than one reader in a book review published last Saturday: “Into this cast of colourful characters walk two figures from Agnès’s childhood, from whom the town busybody, Madame Beck, makes it her business to illicit the so-called ‘truth’.”

That should be “elicit”, a 17th-century word from the Latin “elicere” – to draw out. “Illicit”, the Shorter Oxford further informs me, also dates from the 17th century, and derives from a quite different Latin root, “illicitus”, meaning not allowed.

In the 17th century, more people than today had a working knowledge of Latin and would never have confused these two words. The difference of meaning and derivation would have been obvious, regardless of how similar they were in sound. Today that is not the case.

When was that? If our Latin is dodgy, our knowledge of history – in particular that of the First World War – seems to be sketchy. Last Saturday, we published a film review on Lawrence of Arabia. It referred to “T E Lawrence and his leadership of various Arab tribes during the 1914-17 British campaign against the Turks”.

The involvement of Lawrence with the Arab Revolt in fact extended from 1916 to 1918. The British campaign against the Turks reached its climax in Allenby’s victory at Megiddo in September 1918.

The unlucky year of 1917 popped up again that same day in the obituary of a Czech airman who served in the RAF in the Second World War: “Vladimir Nedved was born in 1917 in Brno in the South Moravia region of what was then Czechoslovakia.”

No, it wasn’t. Czechoslovakia did not come into existence until 1918. In 1917, Brno was still in the, admittedly crumbling, Austro-Hungarian Empire.

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