Mea Culpa: Shine a little light on the correct use of coruscate

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People write in pointing out frequent occasions when we write "coruscate" but mean "excoriate". Earlier this month, for instance, we reported on how the Government's chief scientific adviser had launched a "withering attack" on the US administration's toleration of climate change. The attack came, we said, in a "coruscating article".

People write in pointing out frequent occasions when we write "coruscate" but mean "excoriate". Earlier this month, for instance, we reported on how the Government's chief scientific adviser had launched a "withering attack" on the US administration's toleration of climate change. The attack came, we said, in a "coruscating article".

"Coruscate" means to give off flashes of light. "Excoriate" means to flay. To confuse the two is one of the most common malapropisms and is, of course, deplorable. But I wonder (and here I risk being struck off the rolls of the Ancient and Inexorable Order of Pedants and Logic-Choppers) whether it is quite the disaster it is made out to be. The fear is that if we carry on using "coruscate" to mean criticise severely we shall lose it in its proper meaning, just as we risk allowing "presently" to decay into a synonym for "now" and "protagonist" into a synonym for "advocate".

These latter would be real losses. In their proper senses these two words have no synonyms. But "coruscate"? When we have shine, glitter, glow, glimmer, shimmer, flicker and twinkle, how desperately do we need "coruscate" as well?

But let us fight the good fight, for though "coruscate" might not be much of a loss, "excoriate" must be saved. It has a unique force. We need this image of criticism so severe that it strips off your skin.

Not over yet: Further proof that the word "over" should be banned from headlines comes from the front page of The Independent on Sunday: "Hoon faces censure over body armour for UK troops." "Over", as usual, leads the headline writer down the fatally easy slope from saying what is happening to merely specifying an area of concern. It is a descent from precision into fuzziness.

In this case the headline ends up saying the opposite of what it means. The complaint against Mr Hoon is not about body armour for UK troops: it is about no body armour for UK troops.

Black day: More headline trouble on Monday, with this marching across two pages of the compact edition: "Accused of taking £118m, deposed as head of his empire - is this Black's Moscow retreat?"

Two things wrong.

First, you tinker with familiar sayings at your peril. The Retreat from Moscow is the Retreat from Moscow. If there isn't room for the "from", just dump it and think of something else. "Black's Moscow retreat" has no Napoleonic magic at all; it sounds like a holiday dacha in the woods. (By the way, the Retreat from Moscow took place more than a year before Napoleon's first abdication, so it isn't much of a parallel with Lord Black's predicament now.)

Second, the reference to £118m is an appalling example of a currency conversion trying to be more precise then the original figure, one of the crassest blunders a newspaper can be guilty of. The accusation Lord Black must answer makes no mention of a sum of £118m. The report below told of "a case of alleged corporate pillage amounting to more than $200m (£118m)". It is perfectly clear that $200m is a very rough round figure and the sterling conversion is there only for intellectual completeness. Why didn't the headline just say "Accused of taking $200m ..."? Everybody knows more or less how much the US dollar is worth.

Formerly alive: The long and daft history of the word "former" achieved a new height of daftness in a news report on Thursday: "Israelis reacted with shock and anger yesterday to the news that the man who murdered the former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 was engaged to be married."

In any sentence referring to anyone who once held an office, "former" seems to pop up without human volition. In this case it is both redundant and untrue. Redundant because the sentence states that Rabin is dead, so there is no danger of confusion with the present Israeli prime minister. Untrue because Rabin was never a former Israeli prime minister: thanks to his assassin he went straight from being the current prime minister to being dead.

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