Errors and Omissions: Universally acknowledged truth? Not exactly

Like many such hackneyed quotations, the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice is often trotted out in contexts that turn its meaning around

Share
Related Topics

 A music article in last Saturday’s Radar magazine opened with a resounding cliché: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that any diva worth her salt must record, at some time in her career, a Christmas album.” I am grateful to John Dakin for pointing that out.

Like many such hackneyed quotations, the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice is often trotted out in contexts that turn its meaning round. This feature about Leona Lewis bringing out a Christmas album seems to accept that the “truth” about Christmas albums is indeed true.

But when Jane Austen wrote “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”, she meant no such thing. The message her reader was to take away was that an unmarried man in possession of a good fortune would have plenty of potential wives after him, whether he wanted one or not; the “truth” existed only in the minds of the mothers, like Mrs Bennet, of unmarried daughters. But in two centuries of repetition, Austen’s irony seems to have worn away.

Our news story last Saturday on the Lambeth “slavery” case reported that it “could be Britain’s most enduring incidence of modern-day slavery”. That should be “incident”, not “incidence”. It is a very common error; I think some people are unaware that “incident” and “incidence” are two different words. Both come by way of French from the same Latin root, meaning a falling in.

An incident is a single event, something that happens, usually unexpectedly; it could be as small as losing your house key, or as big as the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which precipitated the Vietnam War. Incidence is an abstract concept. It means how widespread or frequent something is. It can often be expressed as a number. The incidence of death on British roads, for instance, is now running at under 2,000 a year. One could speak of the incidence of slavery in modern Britain, but that was not what the writer meant.

“Students have no right to free speech on campuses, warn vice-chancellors,” declared a headline on a news page last Saturday. That wasn’t what the story said at all. The vice-chancellors’ policy document was quoted as follows: “Universities have to balance their obligation to secure free speech with their duties to ensure that the law is observed – which includes promoting good campus relations and maintaining the safety and security of staff, students and visitors.”

Some people seem to think that any restriction at all on freedom of speech means there is no right of free speech at all. Not so. A right may be respected but still be trumped on occasions by some other weighty consideration, such as the safety of the public. Never forget the observation of the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

React Now

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

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ice skating in George Square, Glasgow  

How many Christmas cards have you sent this year?

Simon Kelner
 

Al-Sweady Inquiry: An exercise in greed that blights the lives of brave soldiers

Richard Kemp
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need
Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

Its use is always wrong and, despite CIA justifications post 9/11, the information obtained from it is invariably tainted, argues Patrick Cockburn
Rebranding Christmas: More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence

Rebranding Christmas

More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence. They are missing the point, and we all need to grow up
A Greek island - yours for the price of a London flat

A sun-kissed island - yours for the price of a London flat

Cash-strapped Greeks are selling off their slices of paradise
Pogues could enjoy fairytale Christmas No 1 thanks to digital streaming

Pogues could enjoy fairytale Christmas No 1 thanks to digital streaming

New system means that evergreen songs could top the festive charts
Prince of Wales: Gruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence

Prince of Wales: Gruff Rhys

He is a musician of wondrous oddity. He is on a perpetual quest to seek the lost tribes of the Welsh diaspora. Just don't ask Gruff Rhys if he's a national treasure...