Errors and Omissions: Dictator, despot, autocrat – spot the difference

Our Letters Editor reviews the slips in this week's paper

Share

Words are not just encoded information. Each has its own history and carries a freight of images and associations.

What is wrong with this use of the word “dictatorship” in the following sentence? It comes from a comment piece about the Syrian crisis, published on Monday: “The West props up numerous Middle Eastern dictatorships, including the fundamentalist House of Saud.”

Well, according to the dictionaries, nothing. Absolute power in the hands of a single person or clique? Population kept in order by state oppression? Tick the boxes; it’s a dictatorship.

And yet, look at the history. The word comes from the Roman republic. In normal times, the executive power (imperium) was divided between two consuls, each to check the ambition of the other. But in times of extraordinary crisis, a single man could be put temporarily in charge. This was a dictator.

After that, the word “dictator” seems to have gone underground for 2,000 years. The thing didn’t go away, of course. In the 19th century, the seizure of power by a single person was called Caesarism. But it wasn’t until the early 20th century that “the dictators” arrived, that infestation of “strong men”, with their utopian “ideologies”, Ruritanian uniforms and gory torture-cellars, who inflicted such disasters on Europe between 1918 and 1945.

None of these men was a hereditary monarch, and most of the countries they ruled were officially republics. Where there was monarchy (Italy, Romania, Hungary), the local dictator treated the monarch with scant respect. Monarchs, in theory, rule by the grace of God: dictators have no credentials but their own supposed qualities.

So what should we call a monarch who behaves in an autocratic or despotic way? An autocrat or a despot would do fine. The former was a title used by both the Roman emperors of Byzantium and the Tsars of Russia. The latter was a semi-autonomous Balkan baron in the Middle Ages.

Discrimination: Last Saturday, we reported on an allegation that Metropolitan Police officers misuse anti-terrorism powers to stop and question travellers at airports. It had been alleged that “some passengers were stopped by officers using a tactic that indiscriminately targets ethnic groups”. On the face of it, that looks daft. Targeting implies discrimination. How do you target anything indiscriminately? The wording also seems to imply that the critics of the police would be happier if officers discriminated more, presumably by misusing their powers at the expense of only a select few ethnic groups. That can’t be right.

Later on, the story explains what is alleged to be going on. Apparently, officers are given targets for the number of people they “stop” in a given period, and it is alleged that they just stop people who look or sound Asian or Arab, without any evidence of wrongdoing.

A better word for that would be “arbitrarily”.

Error: A couple of eagle-eyed readers have written in to take this column to task. Last week we referred to “a classical hanging modifier”. That should have been “classic”.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Our political system is fragmented, with disillusioned voters looking to the margins for satisfaction  

Politics of hope needed to avert flight to margins

Liam Fox
David Cameron delivers his speech on immigration at the JCB World Headquarters in Rocester, Staffordshire  

Cameron's speech was an attempt to kill immigration as an election issue

Andrew Grice
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game