Michael Williams: Readers' editor

Toothcombs deserve the brush-off
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The Independent Online

Have you been going through this morning's papers with a "fine toothcomb"? Then you'd better take some advice from reader John Wademan from Portsmouth who is very cross with 'Independent on Sunday' writer Dom Joly for using the term in his column.

"Just what is a 'fine toothcomb', Dom?" asks Mr Wademan. "A dental implement for tidy teeth, perhaps? Or do you mean a 'fine-tooth comb'? A comb with fine teeth used for detailed examination – of the hair, usually. For nits. Need I say more?"

You sound like a bit of a nit-picker yourself, Mr Wademan. But you are right. The idea of a "toothcomb" is nonsense. Yet how many of us routinely get it wrong? And howlers like this are infecting the language like a virus. A quick Google-search shows "fine toothcomb" popping up in all sorts of places that should know better – including the websites of the BBC, Channel 4 and 'The Guardian' (which at least issued a correction).

The "fine toothcomb" is a classic example of a clichéd army of clapped-out phrases – usually only ever used in one context – which are pitched into speech because we're too lazy to think about what they mean. It's about as useful an implement as a "camel hairbrush".

So to make amends, Mr Wademan, I'm launching the Reader's Editor's campaign to Ban the Lazy and Meaningless Phrase (aka Blimp). Here are my top 10 hates – and I invite readers to submit their own:

1. Snook. (You can cock one, but can't do anything else with it. And what's a snook?)

2. Kibosh. (It's always put on, but never taken off.)

3. Scrimp. (Why do we always have to save as well?)

4. Scot. (Scot-free has nothing to do with fear of tartan hordes. "Scot" means tax.)

5. Forfend. (What's heaven got to do with it?)

6. Tenterhooks. (You may be on them, but I'll wager you don't know what they are.)

7. Hackles. (Ditto. They rise, but why don't they go down again?)

8. Lucre. (Why is it never clean?)

9. Bended. (Surely a knee can be "bent" occasionally?)

10. Shrift. (Short. That's what IoS journalists will get if they flex a "toothcomb", fine or coarse, again.)

There-but-for-the-grace-of-God department: 'The New York Times', dubbed the "Grey Lady" because of its general tone of dullness and primness, was forced to print the following correction, last week: "A headline and an article about a 'Vanity Fair' photograph showing the actress Miley Cyrus in a suggestive pose left the incorrect impression that she was bare-breasted. While the pose was indeed revealing, she was wrapped in what appeared to be a bedsheet; she was not topless." Always nice to find there's a readers' editor somewhere in the world more embarrassed than me.

Happy bank holiday!


Message Board: Should we buy only free-range eggs in future?

Last week's story on the horrific conditions prevailing in farms supplying eggs from battery hens set readers arguing:

Mack, London

Neither chicken nor egg came first; it was hunger. As long as we are unable to resolve major problems (hunger, poverty, unfair society, etc) we shan't be able to solve the problems with animal welfare.

Paul Kail

All animals kept in factory farms are treated brutally. Grain which could have been used to feed humans is used to feed abused animals. About 8kg of plant protein are needed to produce 1kg of animal protein.


We are talking about chickens here, aren't we? I'm less concerned about them than, say, world poverty, slave-like working conditions, etc. It's got to be humans first, chickens a poor second.


I buy free-range, but what controls are there in place to ensure that they are really free-range? It's the humans who cause the suffering. Cruelty is wrong, whether carried out against humans or animals.


Humans are ten a penny and the lowest form of life on the planet. Chickens make great pets, and what could be more entertaining than waiting for a lovely warm fresh egg? Grow your own or buy local!

Andrew Lowe Watson

Even if all eggs sold over the counter were free-range, it would not stop the used of caged eggs in many food products. There should be immediate legislation to label all foods containing caged eggs.


We need to keep asking: "Is this made with free-range eggs?" If the answer is no, or the shop/restaurant/sandwich bar doesn't know, then don't part with your money. Best of all, tell the manager why.

Jane Dickson

Tesco and Asda don't care; they just want eggs that are "free-range" by any means. If people saw the size of these sheds, they would be dumbfounded and angry at the deception.