Whether the caliphate declared a week ago by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now styling himself the Caliph Ibrahim, turns out to be a chapter or a footnote in future history books, we need to write about it now.
An editorial published on Tuesday said: “Its aim is … that a great new empire, in essence a restoration of the original 7th-century caliphate of Mohamed, may rise anew from the chaos and confusion of the Middle East.”
A couple of small points: we don’t need both “new” and “anew”; and this newspaper’s rule of writing out numbers up to nine applies to ordinal as well as cardinal numbers, so it should be “seventh-century”.
There is also a more substantial point: “caliph” is the English version of an Arabic word that means “successor”. The caliphs, the rulers of the early Islamic state, were seen as the successors to the religious and secular authority of Mohamed. It follows that there was no “caliphate of Mohamed”. The first caliph was Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s father-in-law.
An article on Thursday about lost, sold and stolen movie props told us how someone broke into a museum in 2005 and stole Judy Garland’s red shoes from The Wizard of Oz. They were “said to be worth an estimated $1m (£583m)”.
When editing anything, even some agreeable candy floss about Judy Garland’s shoes, take a moment to work through all the figures. In this case the conversion is wrong by a factor of 1,000. A million US dollars is £583,000.
Should we have given a conversion to sterling at all? Everybody has an idea of what $1m is, and an “estimated” figure of 583,000 looks absurdly precise.
“Labour to tackle economic imbalances,” said the headline on a news story published on Tuesday. What does it mean? Difficult to say, unless you have read the story. It turns out that the “imbalances” are between regions. Labour hopes to spread prosperity beyond the South-east of England.
A headline, it hardly needs to be said, is there to tell the reader what the story is about. A headline that you can’t understand without reading the story first is failing to do its job.
The verb “tackle”, incidentally, is a canary in the mine, revealing the presence of fuzzy thinking. Outside football reports, it has no precise meaning. Almost any action you can think of can count as “tackling” a problem.
“Who” and “whom” are in a mess. On the one hand, people say: “Who are you looking at?” On the other, you have this, from a comment piece on Tuesday: “Public affection helped him gain access to so many young girls, whom he later claimed jumped on the bandwagon.” No, he didn’t claim them; he claimed they jumped on the bandwagon – so that should be “who”.
“Whom” is clearly heading for extinction (except immediately following prepositions, as in “To whom did you give it?”). When it is gone, I can’t say the language will be any poorer.