Errors and Omissions: Coffin, or casket? It’s time we got the matter off our chest

The Independent's peerless pedant reviews the slips from this week's paper

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The Independent Online

All other things being equal, this newspaper ought to be written in British, not American, English. However, this column does not wish to sound like a choleric pedant holding forth in about the year 1950, so we do not go on about “Americanisms”.

The simple truth is that there is more commerce of words eastward across the Atlantic than westward because American power, wealth and culture loom larger in the world than British. There is no point in resenting it. So the following, from a news story last Saturday, cannot be called an error, though it still strikes the ear as odd: “Sales of ‘green funerals’ – where the casket is made of cardboard, wicker or bamboo – spiked from £7m to £8m.” According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word “casket”, meaning a small box or chest for jewels or suchlike, dates back to the 15th century. Its use as a synonym for “coffin” is first observed in the US in 1870. But here’s the interesting bit. The word “coffin” itself has undergone a similar shift of meaning. It once meant a chest, case or casket; that obsolete meaning is last recorded in 1677. The modern meaning, a box for a corpse, dates from 1525. We may imagine choleric pedants about the year 1550 lamenting this corruption of the language.

Mixed metaphor of the week: “Far-right vacuum could trigger ‘lone-wolf’ attacks” – news headline last Saturday. How is it possible for a vacuum to trigger an attack by a lone wolf? My family discussed the problem. One idea was that you could use a vacuum-actuated piston to withdraw the bolt of a cage, releasing the wolf to carry out its attack. An even more diabolically ingenious suggestion came from one of my sons: you rig up the piston to squeeze the trigger of a rifle that shoots dead the wolf’s brother; the wolf thus becomes a lone wolf and at the same time conceives a grudge which motivates it to attack. That just about covers everything.

Much less fun than these Heath Robinson fantasies was the actual message the headline was trying to convey: that the recent disarray on the far right in Britain may have increased the danger of terrorist attacks by fascist loners.

Identity crisis: A front-page puff published on Wednesday proclaimed: “Our trains are the most expensive in Europe.” So that means that British train fares are the highest in Europe? Actually, no. The story inside reports that English train fares are the highest in Europe. Wales and Scotland come in fifth and sixth, after Norway, Spain and Germany. So as far as the front page is concerned “we” are not the British, but the English.

This newspaper publishes leading articles backing the Union, but the front-page headline seems keen to drive Scottish voters into the arms of Alex Salmond. The message is that in the eyes of London, Scotland and Wales don’t count.