Robert Fisk: I may need 'space' to get over this linguistic crime

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My favourite comic (before I moved on to the War Picture Library) was always the Eagle.

And my favourite hero was, invariably, Dan Dare. He was the bravest, smartest spaceman around and did battle on page one of each issue with the Mekon, a sort of evil, bubble-like, egg-shaped outer-space version of Osama bin Laden. I seem to recall that each new serial would carry the strap-line: "Dan Dare's most exciting adventure yet!" And I would dutifully take this as truth. After all, Dan Dare was a spaceman and there was nothing that couldn't happen in space.

Yet there is a new and frequent use of the word "space" that is driving me to distraction. Artists use it; office managers use it; architects and journalists and incomprehensible academics use it. I come across this wretched word almost every day and I am beginning to wonder if writers think it's some kind of password to genius, some "higher thinking" word that makes them sound educated, up to date, plausible, philosophical, impressive. It's the kind of word used by writers in what I call "tink-thanks". There are plenty of other words that stick in my craw. "Perceive" and "perception" were in vogue a quarter of a century ago (Jonathan Dimbleby was always kicking this into touch); and "tipping point", which started about eight years ago, gets my goat.

But "space" makes me go nuts. "The public space is shared," one of my favourite writers declared the other day. So why didn't the article just say "in public" (which is what it meant)? "Which isn't to say that it's reductionist ... nor that there's no space for poetic phrasing" appeared in a review of a science book in The Independent on Sunday this month. Surely what the reviewer meant was that "there's room for poetic phrasing" (or "poetic writing"). Another article in the same paper referred to a trilogy "that explored the inner space of a post-religious sensibility", which leaves me completely floored. Was that the purpose?

Then there's the San Francisco advertising agency which said this month of renting the entire country of Liechtenstein that guests could "gain access to distinctive spaces". Floored again. Does this mean that the master of Vaduz castle will open up the rooms at midnight, or that the local church will be available at 3am? Then there's the director of a forthcoming documentary on peace processes whose request to interview me might have been considered if he had not written in his letter that he wanted to "give space to the long view" about the conflicts in Israel and Afghanistan. I simply don't know what he's talking about. I think – I only think, mark you – that he means he will give perspective to the conflicts. But "space"? No thanks, I'll pass.

On Al Jazeera, a commentator announces that the Yemeni opposition needs "time and space to organise themselves". What bullshit! Quite apart from the fact that pseudo marriage counsellors use the same pseudo-phrase "time and space", what was the commentator trying to say? That the Yemeni opposition needs "time to be left alone" in order to produce a coherent organisation? Then, in the book review section of an American Catholic magazine, I find one Marissa Valeri declaring: "The spaces for young women to engage in reflecting on our shared experiences are few and far between..." Does she perhaps mean "opportunities"?

Get my point? Well wait. Here's the magazine of Carleton University – an institution, by the way, with an excellent teaching record and which has given me an honorary degree – carrying a letter which complains about a computer screen and mouse which "take away all the tactile and spatial sensations of the reading experience". I think letter-writer Rick Hippolite got the word "tactile" spot on and then added "spatial" because it sounded more academic, more high falutin'. Then in the same magazine, there's an editorial from the vice-chancellor herself which says: "We need space to study... We need space to read and reflect... They all had one element in common: the need for additional space."

The last sentence is correct, of course. The earlier "spaces" should be "rooms", "halls", or "libraries". But this is nothing compared with an interview in the same journal with an American architect who claims that "the truth is that we truly crave to be together, and workspaces will become more critical in answering that need". Later the interviewer writes: "Her company did the workspace...It's a highly secure space...There was a need for space that was not programmed ahead of time...Her firm originally focused on living spaces...Driven by her conviction that live-work spaces were merging". Sorry, folks. I'm just lost here. Is the missing word "building"? Or "room"?

I should add that the origins of this miserable use of "space" go back some time. In the English edition of her excellent book Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, Barbara Ehrenreich quotes the historian George Mosse as saying, in 1993, that war cemeteries and memorials serve as the "sacred spaces of a new civil religion". I beg your pardon? Surely Mosse meant not "spaces" but plain old "places".

And so it goes on. I have just come across "that pitiful space between real life and actual death". I suspect "pitiful moment" or "pitiful period" is the meaning. Even in translating French, we stumble into "space". France's new ban on women covering up in éspaces publics turns up in English – correctly, of course – as in "public spaces". But as for the French, what, for God's sake, is wrong with en public, which is exactly what is meant? I guess that when we live in a world where US Secretary of State La Clinton can get away at a press conference with talking of a "conclusory statement" about bombing Gaddafi and referring to air sorties as "sortays", anything goes. After this, a word to readers. Next time you come across "space", rip the bloody page to pieces. Unless, of course, it's an old copy of the Eagle and you're deep into Dan Dare's most exciting adventure yet.



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