How to make a dog’s dinner out of a word ending

What on earth is a dalmation? Our Letters Editor provides this week's bloopers reel

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Many evils arise from knowing no Latin. One popped up in a fashion column in last week’s magazine. The headline referred to Cruella De Vil: “The Dalmation thief is a perfect fit for the world of high fashion.”

Just as a person from Rome (Roma) is Roman (Romanus), so a person, or a dog, from Dalmatia is Dalmatian. English has inherited from Latin this class of adjectives ending in “-an”, many of them derived from the names of places.

But more numerous are the English words ending in “-tion” derived from Latin abstract nouns: station; information; relation; rendition; reduction – the list is endless. It’s not surprising that Latinless writers are confused by a word ending in “-tian”.

But then again, why is it that nobody has any difficulty with Alsatian or Croatian – or Christian, come to that – but people constantly trip up over Dalmatian? Maybe they don’t realise that there is a place called Dalmatia, since it is not the name of a modern country.

Here’s the real puzzle, though. The article used the pseudo-word “dalmation” three times, twice in the text and once in the headline. But it quoted correctly the title of the novel and film: One Hundred and One Dalmatians. What can have happened? Did somebody copy and paste the name of the novel from Wikipedia, without noticing how it was spelt?

However, the gods of information technology do have their beneficent side. They have given us the spell-checker, which, if you use it, does pick up “dalmation”. So there is no excuse, Latin or no Latin.

Odd geography: This is from the first paragraph of a news story published on Monday: “Striding through the fields and rich green everglades of the Yorkshire countryside... the writer Will Self was within his rights to feel free and at ease.”

The only Everglades I’ve ever heard of is a large area of tropical wetlands in southern Florida. I can’t speak for every inch of Yorkshire, but I know York and the North Riding fairly well, and I am pretty sure that are no mangrove swamps or alligator-infested rivers in God’s Own County. Less sure is what the writer of this story thought an “everglade” was.

Homophone horror: This is from a news story on Monday about the Gibraltar dispute: “Last week Mr Cameron appeared keen to diffuse the row.” That would mean that the Prime Minister wanted to spread the row around more widely, like a gas. More likely he would want to defuse it, that is, render it harmless, like a bomb-disposal expert defusing a bomb.

Hang it all! Here is a classical hanging modifier, from last Saturday’s obituary of the French lawyer Jacques Vergès. “Unrepentant and controversial throughout his life, his clients included Carlos the Jackal, Klaus Barbie and Pol Pot.” The spirit of Vergès hangs over this sentence, but his name fails to appear, so the words say that it was the notorious clients who were unrepentant and controversial.

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