Mea Culpa: Skyrocketing snakes and other confusions

Clichés and similar-sounding words in this week’s Independent

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Of all the metaphors for saying something has increased a lot, “skyrocketed” is one of the silliest. Rocketing might be all right, although it is a bit much when we are talking about the supply of turkeys in the run-up to Thanksgiving in the United States, or the number of convictions for defaming the royal family in Thailand. 

But most rockets go into the sky, unless they are trying to set land speed records on salt flats in Nevada, so the sky- prefix, which once had a quaint rhetorical effect, has now become a clichéd absurdity. 

Thin slice of snake: In a report of an interview given by Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, we said he had told the US not to interfere in his affairs. “However, Mr Duterte did offer a slither of hope to those invested in future US-Philippines relations.” 

We meant sliver, a thin slice, rather than slither, a snake-like movement. It is, as Michael O’Hare pointed out, a common confusion. 

Kingdom for a horse: A similar confusion, which appeared twice in The Independent this week, is the phrase “free reign” instead of “free rein”. I suppose people are more familiar with the history of kings and queens than they are with riding these days, but the phrase comes from the reins of a horse.

It doesn’t matter much, except that the original meaning was fairly positive, whereas “free reign” often carries a dictatorial implication – I suppose people are thinking of absolute monarchs. However, as I always say, it is worth knowing about because it undermines our authority among the many people who know and care. 

Reluctant Brexiteer: We repeated another confusion in our report of the Brexit notes photographed as they were carried in Downing Street by an aide to Mark Field, the Conservative MP. One snippet read: “Transitional [deal] – loathe to do it.” This was an accurate transcription of the aide’s notes (the original is here), but, as John Schluter pointed out, the speaker probably meant that the Government was “loath to do it”. 

To loathe means to hate, whereas to be loath means to be reluctant. The difference in spelling is arbitrary, and the word comes from the same Germanic root, but this is a rare occasion when a pedantic distinction could be important. 

As the notes were probably a record of what Brexit Secretary David Davis said (the Government refused to confirm this, the note being an unauthorised disclosure), his meaning could be significant. I think he meant that he was reluctant to do a transitional deal after Britain has left the European Union, but that he accepted it was likely, and not that he was incensed by the prospect of such a thing.

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