Errors and Omissions: When words acquire new meanings, it's best not to stand in the way

Our peerless pedant reviews this week's Independent

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A Comment piece in last Saturday’s paper discussed British nostalgia for the two world wars. It quoted a historian who had “suggested that in many minds the two wars are elided”. Laurie van Someren writes in to point out that the word “elide” implies a gap, not a union.

That is true. “Elide” is a term in grammar. It means to omit, to disregard or slide over a letter, syllable or word. But it is also true that in recent years the word has acquired a new meaning: to blur the distinction between two or more things. The fact is that outside the technical language of grammar, we don’t need “elide” in its original meaning of “omit”.

We already have “omit” for that. But we do have a use for a verb that means to smear things together so that although each maintains its identity the boundary between them is no longer discernible. It looks as if we are deciding to use “elide” in that role. To stand in the way would be pedantry.

Baby talk: “A vaccine against a bug that causes diarrhoea is to be introduced from next September. All babies will be routinely offered the vaccine against rotavirus from two months old.” And then the babies will presumably give their consent, or alternatively explain to the doctors why they don’t want the vaccine.

No, obviously the offer of the vaccine will be made to the parents of the babies. This news report, which appeared last Saturday, is an example of what can happen when a term of art leaks into everyday discourse. Medical professionals speak of a procedure being “offered” to the patient, but when the patient is two months old, it sounds silly to the general reader.

Cold water: “Any optimism inspired by last month’s unexpectedly healthy growth figures has been thoroughly dowsed by the string of more downbeat indicators that have followed.” So said a leading article on Thursday. Bob Lowrie writes to point out that “dowsed” should be “doused”. There is some shifting between “ou” and “ow”. Jane Austen, for instance, clothes the nether regions of her male characters in “trowsers”.

But “dowse” and “douse” are two distinct words, though the dictionary has little to say about the origins of either. Both are connected with water. “Douse” means to plunge something into water and make it thoroughly wet; “dowse” means to use a divining rod to find underground sources of water.

Too soon: A theatre review published on Thursday began: “In this much-anticipated follow-up to …” The writer clearly meant “eagerly awaited”. To anticipate something is not merely to expect it to happen, but to take some action in that expectation. If you anticipate your opponent’s attack, you may succeed in warding it off. If you anticipate your next pay cheque you will fall into debt. It is a useful word to have, and it would be a pity to kill it by misuse.

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