Mea Culpa: David Cameron’s not-quite monopoly on power

Word glitches and other confessions of fault in this week’s Independent

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The mea culpa of this column’s title is not usually literal, but I have to confess my own errors this week. I wrote on Wednesday that Theresa May sought to make a “clean break with the Cameron oligopoly”. An oligopoly is an economics term meaning a market dominated by a few sellers, invented in the late 19th century on the pattern of monopoly. It is all right as a metaphor, I suppose, but as Martin Shovel pointed out I meant “oligarchy”, an older word meaning rule by a few.  

That is not all. I also said of the EU referendum that “David Cameron relaxed collective responsibility to allow ministers to argue on both sides of the case”. That could be read as meaning that each minister was allowed to argue both to leave and to remain. As Roy Motteram pointed out, the only person to do that was Boris Johnson, and he wasn’t a minister. I have changed it to “...on each side of the case”.

Tautology class: Henry Peacock read our report of the 30th anniversary of the Zeebrugge disaster with interest and a critical eye. As he says, the headline of our accompanying editorial was inelegant. “On the 30th anniversary of Zeebrugge, we should not forget the lessons learnt.” The “learnt” is redundant. He suggested something like this: “We remember the disaster of Zeebrugge 30 years ago. We should not forget the lessons.” That might not work for our digital audience, but we could have found a better way to express the sentiment.

Go without: We reported on the imposition in the Budget of VAT on mobile phone roaming charges outside the EU, saying that charges are already high, “with many foregoing phone use as a result”. That has been changed to “forgoing”, which is the original spelling but now has to be described as rare. Forego means to go before, whereas forgo, to go without, used to go without the “e”. As the meaning is always clear, this is a harmless bit of Old English pedantry.

Under taking: Mike Connaughton asked me to include “underway” in my expanding campaign to have “forever” and “anymore” as two separate words. We used “underway” 11 times last week, and “under way” just five. I will be happy when we have reversed the ratio. Except – and this often happens to us pedants – when I looked it up in the Oxford Dictionary I discovered that its origin as a nautical term, dated to the mid-18th century, is from the single Dutch word onderweg. I don’t care. English isn’t Dutch or German. Our campaign is under way.

Gigging order: We used the “gig economy” in a headline in our Budget coverage. It is an irritating enough phrase, but I think the problem is that many people don’t know what it means. It comes from the slang “gig” to describe a temporary job or contract. Sometimes we have to tolerate irritating phrases if they are a short and effective way of conveying something. Gig economy is certainly short, but there are other short ways of saying what we needed. “Philip Hammond’s tax raid on the gig economy”, for example, could just as well have been, “Philip Hammond’s tax raid on the self-employed”.

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