Errors and Omissions: It took more than a scandal to bring down Macmillan

Our Letters editor and chief pedant reviews this week's paper


The following is from an arts feature, published on Thursday, on the new musical about Stephen Ward, the osteopath at the centre of the 1963 Profumo scandal: “When Profumo lied about the affair, the politician was forced from office in a chain of events that eventually brought down Harold Macmillan’s government too.”

Macmillan’s government was not, in any strict sense, “brought down”, though some of his own Tory MPs plotted against him. He survived a vote in the Commons but resigned because of ill-health, to be succeeded by the hapless Alec Douglas-Home, who lost a general election the following year.

But it is true that there was a fin-de-siècle feel in 1963. Macmillan’s fuddy-duddy administration seemed ripe to be replaced, as it was, by Wilson’s “white heat of the technological revolution”, just as Swinging London got into its swing. There was at the time, and still is, a persistent feeling that Macmillan was indeed brought down – by inexorable Fate.

Hackneyed: Is “feisty” sexist? A Voices piece published on Tuesday observed that “for the past 30 years, Disney has been including feisty female protagonists in its movies” and that the latest of the breed, in the new film Frozen, is “as feisty as ever”.

“Feisty” is only ever used of women and girls, and it seems to carry a subtext of “brave and energetic in a way you wouldn’t have expected in a woman”.

Sexist or not, “feisty” is certainly hackneyed. A “feisty” woman is as dull and predictable as a “pious” Catholic, a “staunch” Protestant or a “brutal” murderer.

Unexplained: I was left in an agony of unsatisfied curiosity on Thursday by an education feature about the “grade point average” system used in the US to mark university degrees. We were informed that the top score was 4.25, with 3.75 equivalent to a low First Class degree, and so on. That was it. No explanation of why anyone would devise a scale with 4.25 at the top.

To leave the reader struggling with an unanswered question is normally a mortal sin, but in this case the writer may, perhaps, be forgiven. Turning to Wikipedia, I found an extensive article on university grading systems, packed with facts but, as is so often the case in the esoteric world of education theory and practice, opaque to the ordinary human brain.

A pedant's favourite: An arts piece last Saturday told how the rock band Midlake lost their singer-songwriter and survived. The introductory blurb said: “When the Texas folk-rockers lost their creative lynchpin, it was, they say, a relief.”

That should, of course, be “linchpin”. Getting this word right is one of the classic tests of true pedantry. It means the iron pin that holds a cartwheel on to the axle. I guess the “linch” may be the hub of the wheel, but the derivation is mysterious. The verb “lynch” is more straightforward. One Captain William Lynch pioneered what politely might be called informal judicial tribunals in 18th-century Virginia.

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