Errors and Omissions: Too much jargon is no laughing matter

Our Letters editor and chief pedant reviews this week's paper


It is easy for specialist writers to get too close to the jargon of their specialisms, and assume that everybody knows what it means. This is from an interview, on an arts page on Tuesday, with the actress Nancy Carroll, about her new show: “It’s the most fun I have ever had on stage. Slightly too much fun. There’s a lot of corpsing going on.”

No explanation of the word “corpsing” was offered by the article. But there, really, honestly are people who don’t know what it means. I had to look it up to make sure I had got it right. It is theatrical slang for a trick one actor can play on another during a live performance by trying to make them laugh. Nobody seems to know the origin of the word, though Wikipedia points out that an obvious likely victim of the jolly jape is an actor who has been “killed” on stage and has to pretend to be a corpse.

Here’s another corpse, from a picture caption published on Wednesday. “The TV presenter Melissa Bachman with the corpse of a lion she killed in South Africa.” The word “corpse” is derived from the Latin “corpus”, which just means “body”, but in modern English usage it is restricted to the dead bodies of humans. The reader knows what “the corpse of a lion” means, but it looks wrong. Why not just “with a lion she killed in South Africa”?

Airbrushed? Beware of “literally”. It is usually misused. On Tuesday we ran a story about the uncle of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un – since executed – and how his image had been removed from scenes in a TV documentary. The opening sentence said: “It would seem that his uncle has, quite literally, been airbrushed from history.” No, he hadn’t been. Even in North Korea you need digital tools to doctor electronic images. No literal airbrushes – tiny paint spray guns – are involved. Any airbrushing in this case was strictly metaphorical.

Neologism: Lady Gaga, according to a review published on Thursday, “plays on celebrity and commerciality in her lyrics”. “Commerciality” is a new one on me. Is it really any different from the familiar “commercialism”? Yes, I think it is. “Commercialism” is the behaviour of those who seek to make profits from commerce. “Commerciality” seems to be the quality of being commercial; that is to say, of being like a commodity for sale – shallow and a bit tawdry perhaps. So, the neologism “commerciality” gets the imprimatur.

Boxing clever: A rare Errors and Omissions Gold Award for Getting It Right goes this week to David Usborne, our US editor, who wrote on Thursday of President Obama: “The extent of the political pummelling dealt him by the healthcare fiasco can’t be overstated.” Nine writers out of 10 would have written “can’t be understated”, thus unwittingly telling their readers that the pummelling was very small.

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