Errors and Omissions: Anachronistic metaphors are fraught with danger

The Independent's letters editor and chief pedant spots this week's best howlers


Metaphors often last longer than the activities that gave rise to them. When, for instance, did you last batten down a hatch? Strange errors can creep in.

This is from a report published on Thursday about financial corruption in Nigeria: “Investors also credit him with reigning in inflation and stabilising the currency.” The equally erroneous “free reign” turns up all the time, but this is the first time I have seen “reigning in”. It should of course be “reining in”. The metaphor is from riding a horse, still a common enough leisure activity, but not the everyday necessity it once was. The rider reins in the horse to slow it down, by pulling on the reins.

Even rarer these days, incidentally, is falconry. The misuse of “watch like a hawk” has consequently become universal and unvarying. Everybody thinks the sharp-eyed hawk is watching something: it is in fact being “watched” – kept awake on the fist. For a description of this ancient training technique see T H White’s wonderful little book, The Goshawk.

On Thursday we reported on Neil Young’s launch of his new music-playing gadget. The story said: “The performer, a long-term critic of MP3 files, launched a crowd-funding appeal for his new start-up company.” I think that should be “a long-time critic”. We simply want to say that Young has been a critic for a long time. “Long-term” reads as if he has made some sort of formal commitment to go on and on about it for a specified period.

On Monday we carried an editorial on the development of a test that can predict the onset of Alzheimer’s. “This,” we opined, “is a considerable breakthrough.” Is that as opposed to a tiny, trivial breakthrough? I think the writer was groping for “important” or “welcome”. To call a breakthrough “considerable” looks daft.

This is from a news story published last Saturday: “The campaign involved … a step-by-step guide on how to infiltrate schools with hardline Muslim supporters … with the ultimate aim of imposing fundamental Islamic values.” I don’t think there is anything sinister about fundamental Islamic values. The problem being referred to here is fundamentalist Islamic values, which are generally taken to mean trying to impose some hardline version of Islam on everybody, whether they like it or not.

Last Saturday’s profile of Baroness Ashton referred to “the long, torturous negotiations over opening the EU market to fruit grown in South America”. It is conceivable that the writer meant to say that the negotiations were like torture (torturous). It is more likely that they were simply full of twists and turns – that is to say tortuous.

Our Tuesday report of proceedings in the Pistorius trial included this: “The bullets that Mr Pistorius fired through the locked door of his bathroom were of a variety designed to expand on impact and sustain maximum damage.” No, the target sustains damage: the weapon inflicts it.

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