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

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 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.”

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