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

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