Mea Culpa: racked with guilt about hare-brained schemes

Funny spellings and other language changes in this week’s Independent

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When Haley Bonar, whose song “Last War” is one of my favourites, appeared on Later… with Jools Holland, she found it, we reported on Tuesday, “a nerve-wracking but nonetheless highly enjoyable experience”. It doesn’t really matter how you spell nerve-racking – indeed the “wrack” spelling is probably now more common – but it is satisfying to know that it comes from the rack, an instrument of torture, and not wrack, which is a kind of seaweed (or an archaic spelling of wreck, as in “wrack and ruin”). 

Chaos reigns: In the online universe, journalistic styles are evolving. There is a fashion for long, exclamatory headlines that we use because we know they attract the reader’s attention. On Thursday, for example, we had this headline: “Donald Trump’s transition: Five reasons why chaos, not order and calm, reigns on the top floor of Trump Tower.” 

There is nothing wrong with “the reason why”. The “why” is redundant, but it is how most people speak. So I am merely observing that we might delete it if we were being formal, but that we pedants should let the world move on. 

Rabbiting on: A lovely misfired metaphor in a rugby match report on Saturday: “Ireland's comfortable 14-0 lead then evaporated amid sloppy and at times hair-brained play.” That should be hare-brained, a reference to the apparently demented behaviour of hares in the mating season (“as mad as a March hare”).

Although in our defence it seems that “hair” was accepted as a variant spelling of the animal, especially in Scotland, until well into the 18th century.

Horror fiction: We commented last Friday on Nigel Farage’s trip to New York to meet Donald Trump and to claim credit for the President-elect’s victory. “You couldn’t make it up,” we said. Well, Terry Pratchett wrote books about a flat world on the back of four elephants that in turn stand on a giant turtle. The human imagination is large enough to create a fictional president who embodies liberalism’s worst fears. It is precisely because we can imagine it that we are so worried.

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