Errors and Omissions: Don't try turning a colonel into an Oberst or a captain into a Hauptmann

Not long ago, somebody referred to Rommell as a "field marshall". Our favourite pedant, who knows a thing or two about military history, finds a similar error this week


More trouble with German field marshals. Three weeks ago, somebody wrote about Rommel and called him a “field marshall”. Now it is Paulus, of Stalingrad fame. On Thursday we ran an article marking the 70th anniversary of the German surrender at the end of the hardest-fought battle of the war.

The piece mentioned “the cellar under Stalingrad’s main department store, where Adolf Hitler’s Fieldmarshall, Friedrich Paulus, surrendered”.This looks like a mangled attempt at the German form of the rank, “Generalfeldmarschall”. Why bother? Just stick to the plain English “Field Marshal”. We don’t call a German colonel “Oberst” or a captain “Hauptmann”.

This whole business of German field marshals is of merely historical interest anyway, since the rank does not exist in today’s German army.

Boat ahoy! On Wednesday we published a picture of Up Helly Aa, the annual Viking-style “fire festival” in Lerwick, Shetland. The caption said that the festivities culminate with people “throwing flaming torches into a replica Viking longboat”. A longboat is one of the types of boat carried by warships of Nelson’s day. It is a large boat, rowed by eight or 10 oarsmen. A thousand years earlier, the Vikings who terrorised Shetland sailed from Scandinavia in superb ocean-going boats powered by either oars or sail. These are known as longships. You often see longships called longboats, but it is still wrong.

Neither, of course, is a longboat to be confused with a narrowboat, which plies inland canals – but that is another story.

Do you speak Polish? On Thursday came the news that Polish is now the most commonly spoken non-native language in England and Wales, overtaking Punjabi and Urdu. The report was headlined: “Polish becomes the UK’s new lingua franca.”

Not quite. A lingua franca is a language or mixture of words from different languages in common use for communication across language barriers. The original lingua franca (Italian for “Frankish tongue”) was a jumble of mostly Italian words used in the Levant. Today, of course, English itself is a lingua franca in many parts of the world. In Britain, Polish is not a lingua franca, just a language spoken by a large minority community.

Seal of disapproval: Sara Neill writes from Tunbridge Wells to express disgust at the following, which appeared on Tuesday in a story about a seal that turned up in a Scottish car park: “A worker placed him in their car boot while they waited for the Scottish SPCA to arrive.” The use of “they” as a singular pronoun for a person of unspecified gender is well established, but there are two things wrong here. The “they” – the rescuer of the seal – is not a generalised person of unspecified gender but a particular person whose gender the writer has apparently failed to find out. And if a seal can be “he”, it seems hard for a human to have to be “they”.

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